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Government ‘battle-planning’ for coronavirus still means difficult choices for ministers

No amount of 'battle-planning' can fully prepare ministers for taking difficult decisions.

The prime minister is now leading the government’s response to the spread of coronavirus, but Dr Catherine Haddon warns that no amount of 'battle-planning' can fully prepare ministers for taking difficult decisions.

The government has now released its "battle plan" to tackle the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Following criticism of No.10’s initial reaction, the government has massively ramped up its response. COBR has been convened, there are increased resources in the Cabinet Office to co-ordinate the government’s plan, and the prime minister is making frequent media appearances. A minister has even been allowed back on the BBC Today programme.

The government and all public bodies have plans in place to tackle pandemic flu. But if the coronavirus outbreak develops into a nationwide crisis, the government will face some very difficult political decisions.

The government is following lessons from past crises

The UK has long had a national strategy for dealing with pandemic flu and guidance for different sectors, local and devolved government, as well as for workplaces and businesses. The aim of the strategy is to slow the virus’s spread, minimise its impact and maintain the confidence of the public. That has now been adapted for the particular circumstances of Covid-19, whose relatively easy transmission has prompted a focus on public information and self-isolation. 

The UK learnt lessons from the 'swine flu' (H1N1) outbreak in 2009, particularly on the uncertainty that exists in the early stages and the need for early detection, tracking new cases and co-ordinated messaging. But these lessons largely relate to the public health response. Covid-19 is posing a much wider set of problems for the government in terms of the strategy to contain, delay, research and mitigate its effects.  

The government has acknowledged that it is very difficult to predict the pace and range of any Covid-19 spread. It is focused on both an acute worsening of any outbreak, with a sudden spike in cases, but also the possibility of a prolonged pandemic, where cases remain high for a long period of time.

A coronavirus pandemic could have a widespread impact on government

As the government’s range of guidance acknowledges, if (or when) the coronavirus takes hold, the impact will be felt across government and across the country. The UK’s health sector is already under huge pressure, from bed availability to staff shortages and the overload on GP surgeries, but a sustained pandemic will have effects on businesses, transport, tourism, sport and leisure industries. The Treasury will be making plans for the likely impact on the world economy and the specific hit to the UK economy, with the government also reviewing what self-isolation or quarantined regions would mean for the self-employed, those on zero-hours contracts, at-risk groups and those on benefits.

The government might have to start making difficult choices. Its strategy is to minimise disruption while also being prepared to take drastic action to stem the spread. But will the UK follow China’s attempts to stem the infection rates: quarantining areas, shutting schools and universities and banning travel? For now the approach is to delay before employing any more drastic measures that could cause major disruption, and it is hard to predict how the public, businesses and different sectors will cope with restrictions.

The government may need to make hard choices about its own priorities

Alongside its approach to dealing with the public health consequences of Covid-19, the government also needs to consider what impact it will have on its other policies. What happens if any departments and their agencies and arm’s-length bodies have to shut down? Government, like all other businesses, will be thinking about contingencies in terms of staff working from home, but there is only so much work that can be managed remotely. Politicians will need to accept that closures will affect how its policies proceed.

The same is true if parliament closes. Plans will be being drawn up, but parliament has little ability to operate remotely. Some innovation might be managed for select committees and for staff supporting individual MPs. But if the parliamentary estate needs to be shut down, this would be the equivalent of a long recess. It will affect the ability of government to pass legislation.

So a more serious pandemic over a sustained period of time could start to undermine everything else that this new government, with big policy ambitions, wants to do. Beyond the impact of coronavirus on the capacity of government, restrictions on travel and on meetings could even undermine negotiations with the EU over the next few weeks and months and plans for hosting the COP 26 climate summit in the autumn. The government could end up facing difficult questions over what to prioritise and what to delay.

Government can do many things at one time. But accepting that there isn't the capacity or time to achieve political goals is one of the hardest realisations in government. Many of the former ministers interviewed for our Ministers Reflect programme talk about how long it took to achieve their policy aims and their frustrations with not doing more. Many of them also talk about the unforeseen events that took over instead.

The prime minister could soon find out that, like many of his predecessors, his premiership will not be defined by the plans he had when he first took on the job. 

Prime minister
Institute for Government

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