Arrogance among officials compromised Covid response, nudge unit boss claims

Government advisers accused of being reluctant to learn from other countries, inquiry documents show
United Kingdom flag and face mask. Photo: JJ Gouin/Alamy

By Jonathan Owen

16 Oct 2023

The government’s Covid response was compromised by an arrogance that the UK knew better than other countries, according to Professor David Halpern, chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team.

His criticisms were revealed in a new document released by the Covid Inquiry. Halpern had been asked by Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm and deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara for his opinion on how the government had handled the pandemic.

In an Institutional Lessons from Covid document prepared for Chisholm and MacNamara, dated 28 September 2020, Halpern warned: “The pride in our science and our capabilities slowed our ability to learn lessons from other countries. Under cover of variations of ‘it is very different there’, there was an arrogance that we knew better, and would do better."

The UK had brought together “a world class group of experts, alongside a world class civil service,” yet there had been “an un-world-class outcome” with the UK in “the ‘top 10’ worst national performers by per capita death rates", Halpern said.

Halpern said a fundamental mistake was an “overconfidence and anchoring in our expert medical community” which resulted in “a presumption that covid would be like a flu-like wave, blinding it to the pursuit of near-suppression as a viable option and an expanded tracing system in particular".

The UK’s decision-making process “was vulnerable to systematic error" he said, adding: “People mistook academic enquiry for policy. We neglected the ‘engineering’ of effective delivery.”

An alternative approach was not considered, Halpern claimed. “The world – and more specifically the South Asians – had found another strategy: to build a sophisticated test-and-trace system strong enough to substantially suppress the virus, at least for long enough to enable treatment and vaccines to be developed."

Haplern stated: “There were a number of us – generally outside the biomedical bubble – who highlighted this alternative strategy.” However, he said they found themselves "quietly dismissed as not really understanding the science.”

He added: “A strong biomedical perspective was not effectively tempered with robust behavioural or economic analysis, and a weak central process failed to give adequately balanced advice to the Cabinet of [sic] PM.”

Halpern said a key lesson to learn from the pandemic was not to “put your eggs in one basket”. “We generally failed when we over-specified the objective and means to deliver it, and then bet the bank on a single solution," Halpern said.

He cited the NHS Test and Trace app as “a particularly grim example”, stating: “NHSX not only pursued only one (internal) option, they persisted with this as deadline after deadline passed. This was a serious policy failure in its own right.” In his view, the app should and could have been ready for the end of the first lockdown rather than “six months after the original target date”.

At the time of Halpern's letter, the UK death toll had reached 42,000; the government had introduced the “rule of six”, designed to limit the size of social gatherings in a bid to stem the resurgent spread of Covid, and the NHS contact-tracing app had just launched after months of delays.

Halpern recommended that as well as improvements to core decision making, the government should use civil service reform and spending reviews "to strengthen the empirical and methodological competence of the UK policy profession".

He suggested that key meetings should be chaired by “intelligent generalists” rather than those “with strong prior expertise in a particular area or specialism” and “seek to develop alternative viewpoints”. And Halpern stated his ambition to create a “world-class institution that can deliver timely advice and solutions to the standard we need”.

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