Sedwill sets out thinking on public inquiry into Covid-19 response

Former cabinet secretary tells MPs decision makers don’t have to wait to learn lessons on pandemic handling
Mark Sedwill appears remotely before PACAC on 17 November 2020

By Jim Dunton

18 Nov 2020

Former cabinet secretary Lord Mark Sedwill has set out key questions a future public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic will have to answer – including whether the UK was right to maintaining fewer critical-care hospital beds than other European states.

Sedwill, who stepped down as cabinet secretary and national security adviser in September, made his observations to members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee yesterday.

In a wide-ranging evidence-gathering session that ran to well over two hours, Sedwill also answered questions about his departure from Whitehall, civil service reform, and the sacking of Department for Education perm sec Jonathan Slater in response to August’s A-level results fiasco.

On the nation’s coronavirus response, Sedwill  told MPs he believed that  a public inquiry – or a similarly formal examination – would need to take place to inform future contingency planning. But he insisted that all recommendation’s from 2016’s cross-government Exercise Cygnus event, which war-gamed a pandemic, were in the process of being implemented when the measures were required for real earlier this year.

“It’s why all departments had business continuity plans that allowed them to operate with 20% of their people off sick,” he said.

“It’s why we were able to pivot from having 90-95% of staff in the office to 90-95% of staff working from home in a matter of days and continue to run Universal Credit and the tax system, and so on.”

Sedwill said he did not believe there had been any lack of understanding in government of the ability to respond to the pandemic when it began hitting the nation earlier this year.

“The question is whether we had the capabilities to put us in the best possible position to respond effectively,” he said. “And that is one of the questions the inquiry will have to ask.”

NHS resourcing

The former cabinet secretary said that key issues he expected to emerge from the official probe into the pandemic would be whether the UK’s decision to run the NHS with a proportionately low level of critical care beds in comparison to other EU nations was the right one.

Sedwill told MPs he believed that the UK had about half the number of critical-care beds per head of population than France and Italy, and about one-quarter of the figure for Germany.

“Some of that is because of the structure of our health service. It’s different: our GP system provides different routes in. But the per-head of population level of critical care beds in this country is lower than it is in other countries,” he said.

“That’s just a straightforward resource decision that has been taken over many years and [by] governments of different complexions.

“Will one of the conclusions of the inquiry be that we need more critical-care capacity, even if that isn’t used much of the time, unless there is a pandemic of this kind?”

Sedwill said that the Nightingale hospitals were a success story, even as they were "under used fortunately".

"But my God we were glad of knowing that we had that capacity as we went into the peak of the pandemic. These are judgments that have to be made within each system.”

However, he said there were “clearly some lessons” that the UK needed to learn, “particularly from east Asia and particularly about track, trace and testing”.

Sedwill told MPs that of the “two or three big questions” the future public inquiry would need to ask, the first would be – with the benefit of hindsight – whether the right decisions had been taken at the right time.

Issues within that topic would include whether the two lockdowns so far had been imposed at the right time, whether they had been the right thing to do, and how different approaches in the four nations of the UK had fared.

Sedwill told MPs that the other major questions that would need to be addressed were whether the UK had the right capabilities to deal with the pandemic and whether there were features of the UK’s general health that may have increased the population's vulnerability to Covid-19.

Committee chair William Wragg asked Sedwill whether he believed it would be possible to start the inquiry while the pandemic response was ongoing. 

Sedwill said he did not think it would be possible do a formal inquiry until later, but said that did not mean there should be a delay to learning some lessons in the shorter-term.

“In essence we won’t know until we’re through it what has worked and what hasn’t,” Sedwill said.

“What appears to be efficacious in the immediate term might turn out to have second-order consequences later in the pandemic that are indeed negative. Or the other way around. We simply don’t know.

“But the point about constantly asking ourselves: ‘How do we learn; how do we improve; how do we ensure that each phase of this we are learning the lessons?’ – of course we should do that.”

Slater sacking was 'unusual'

Elsewhere in Tuesday’s session, Sedwill was asked about the increased churn in departmental perm secs leaving office in 2020. He said the high number of departures was in part a result of the introduction of five-year fixed term appointments introduced by the coalition government.

However, he acknowledged that the sacking of Department for Education perm sec Jonathan Slater and the resignations of former Home Office perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam and former Government Legal Department head Sir Jonathan Jones were different matters.

Asked specifically for his views on Slater’s removal from post by prime minister Boris Johnson, following August’s A-level results chaos, Sedwill said the case was “very unusual” and referred MPs to the former perm-sec’s interview in the current edition of Civil Service World.

"Jonathan has spoken about this himself in a Civil Service World interview, and I think the best thing for me to do is reflect what he said himself," he said. "It would probably be unfair of me to say anything that Jonathan hasn’t said himself,” Sedwill added.

Dom was right

MPs also asked Sedwill about the government’s civil service reform drive – until the weekend seen very much as a pet project of the prime minister’s chief special adviser Dominic Cummings.

Sedwill told MPs that while he agreed with the sentiment of Cummings’ infamous January blog-cum-job-advertisement for “misfits and weirdos”, he would not have used the same words.

“I would use my own language, but the initiative that Dominic Cummings made in that blog, that we need to bring in more people with different skills, including different kinds of cognitive backgrounds, into public service to bring those skills and attributes to government – people with different skills and different backgrounds – I’m all for,” he said.

This reflected Sedwill's comments to CSW in his exit interview in August, where he said that “although I wouldn't express it the same way as Dominic Cummings, I also think the desire... to bring in more expertise into the civil service is a good thing”. 

No plan to 'haunt the attic'

Also on Tuesday, Sedwill reiterated that he had never planned to serve as both cabinet secretary and national security adviser for the long term and that his departure from government had sprung out of conversations with the prime minister about separating the responsibilities.

PACAC chair Wragg asked Sedwill why he had not opted to return to the role of national security adviser, in recognition that Sedwill had acknowledged the role was the one he felt best suited to.

“I’d always intended that I would move on to a different job or step down once the roles were separated,” Sedwill replied.

“I think it would have been hard on my successor as cabinet secretary to have me haunting the attic, if you like, as national security adviser.

“And it wouldn’t have made sense for me to go back to doing that job, not least because I put into place arrangements to cover the obvious capacity that I hadn’t been able to bring to it when I was combining the jobs. It had always been my intention to move on.”

Simon Case succeeded Sedwill as cabinet secretary;  David Frost – the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator – was named Sedwill’s successor as national security adviser in June. 

Sewill joined the House of Lords as a crossbench peer on 11 September.

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