Covid Inquiry: Cabinet Office’s initial response structure ‘was source of confusion’

Ministerial Implementation Group model was ditched because of overlaps and lack of clarity over responsibility
Simon Ridley gives evidence to the Covid Inquiry on 7 November 2023

By Jim Dunton

08 Nov 2023

The Cabinet Office’s initial model for Covid decision making was ditched after a matter of weeks because it was overly bureaucratic and a source of confusion, the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the crisis has heard.

Former Covid Taskforce head Simon Ridley told the Covid Inquiry yesterday that the unit had been created in May 2020 because of overlaps between the responsibilities of four predecessor “ministerial implementation groups” set up in response to the pandemic two months earlier.

Ridley said the MIGs had been created out of a recognition that the Cabinet Office needed to “hugely increase” its capacity in the face of the pandemic. The four MIGs had responsibility for healthcare, general public services, economic and business, and international issues.

Each was chaired by a secretary of state and fed into a 9.15am strategy meeting chaired by the prime minister that took place on most days.

Ridley, who was secretary for the Health MIG, said that it became “increasingly clear” from an early stage that there were multiple areas of overlap between the groups and that the issue was compounded by the fact that they were all preparing for the 9.15 strategy meeting.

“We talked about shielding and a lot of those issues were with the Health Ministerial Implementation Group, but some issues around wider support were in the GPS-MIG,” he said.

“Take an issue like PPE. We were concerned in the H-MIG about stocks, but actually there was a big international set of issues about this because of procurement from abroad. And there were issues in the GPS-MIG for prison officers, schools etc…”

Ridley told the hearing that there wasn’t a “tidy funnel” for MIGs to arrive at a central strategy and that in the weeks the system survived it “became a kind of noisy structure”.

He added that the structure was also not helpful for senior leaders trying to identify where authority for particular areas of the response lay.

“For key colleagues in No.10 and the prime minister – and indeed other secretaries of state and departments – it wasn’t clear who was responsible for what a lot of the time,” Ridley said.

Ridley told the inquiry that the Covid Taskforce had been created in recognition of the need to improve effectiveness and efficiency within the Cabinet Office, and to be clear about who was responsible for what.

He added: “Because of all of this, and some of the challenges of the working environment, there was a need for a bit of a reset. And that meant ending the arrangements that ran until the end of May and moving to what became the taskforce.”

Inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith asked Ridley whether there had simply been too many meetings and too much time spent on trying to work out what discussions should take place at which meetings under the MIG arrangements.

“Yes, I think that is true, inside the Cabinet Office,” Ridley replied. “I think it was also confusing for colleagues in other departments. Most cabinet meetings are preceded by an officials’ meeting chaired by the secretary or a member of the secretariat team.

“If you’re in the Department of Health and Social Care, incredibly busy across all of this, and you’re trying to feed people to an H-MIG officials’ meeting and a GPS-MIG officials’ meeting and an International-MIG officials’ meeting then there was too much activity.”

Keith said the situation sounded like “a profusion of officialdom”.

Ridley responded: “Yes, if you like.”

The inquiry continues.

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