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The government should bring its moonshot announcements back to earth

On Covid, the government declares what it will do before knowing whether it can actually do it

Announcements on testing and coronavirus marshals are the latest example of the government declaring what it will do before knowing whether it can actually do it, says Sarah Nickson 

The government has added two ambitious coronavirus plans to a growing pile: Covid marshals will roam local streets, reporting people defying social distancing restrictions; and a ‘moonshot’ plan to test up to 10 million people per day, using yet-to-be-developed technology, has been launched.

Both were met with scepticism. Former Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) chair Bernard Jenkin criticised his colleagues in government for a tendency “to announce things they’re going to do instead of demonstrating… what they have achieved”. The problem is not that the government announces what it is going to do – it is that it announces its plans without knowing how, or whether, it can actually carry them out.

A pattern has emerged: the government comes under pressure for a mistake or failure to get on top of a problem. It then makes a hasty pledge with little thought about whether it is achievable and without talking to the people or organisations who will help deliver it. Before long, its plans unravel under scrutiny, and it is forced to retreat from the original commitment. If it wants parliament and the public to have confidence in its handling of the pandemic, is time for the government to break this cycle.

The government frequently fails to consult and think through basic details

In the rush to announce and demonstrate its grip on the crisis, the government has sacrificed consultation with the people and organisations charged with delivering its commitments – and to check whether the idea is viable.

The commitment to carry out 100,000 tests per day by 30 April seemed to emerge from the health secretary’s office with little outside input. The diagnostics industry, who would supply the chemicals needed for the tests, and NHS trusts, whose labs would help process them, were both blindsided by the announcement. The health secretary even failed to talk to his own testing co-ordinator. Since then, the minister’s ambition has increased but his willingness to consult has not followed suit. Scientists and industry figures lined up to pour cold water on this latest effort.

Covid marshals are another case in point. The programme is supposed to be run and paid for by local councils. But the first the councils heard of these plans was at the prime minister’s daily press conference, while the Local Government Association had only been told hours beforehand.

The government’s failure to deliver on its announcements has led to policy backflips

These failures have set in train several of the U-turns that have beset the government in recent months. Imposing quarantine restrictions on travellers from abroad was another policy which was flagged and then launched with a lack of consultation. This led to a series of reversals, with a mooted exemption for France withdrawn when it was pointed out this meant the quarantine could be easily evaded and air bridges dismissed shortly after they were announced. The quarantine list is now updated each week, but transport secretary Grant Shapps, under pressure to introduce testing at airports, has said the government is now "working with health experts with the aim of cutting" the current 14-day quarantine period. 

On marshals, the government initially said councils would not receive new funding. On the same day, following an outcry, the government reversed course. This might have been avoided had it thought to talk to councils in the first place.

The government also had to abandon its pledge to return primary school students to classrooms before the summer break. At the time the prime minister made the announcement, the government had seemingly failed to join the dots between its own social distancing policies and what that meant for schools: creating extra classrooms, calling up more teachers and establishing staggered start, finish and break times, all in the space of a few weeks. Thinking through the basics should have stopped it making the commitment in the first place.

Changing course is not in itself a bad thing. It can indicate willingness to listen to feedback and adapt to a changing context. But this is not the case where the backflip is the result of failure to do due diligence in the first place.

Government policies do not have to be led by announcement

Even in a fast-moving crisis, the government has shown it can find ways to test whether an idea is viable before it is unveiled. When it announced the furlough scheme, the government sketched out only its broad plans (worked up over 48 hours) and finalised the specifics afterwards. Far from being a sign of chaos, that strategy was a success. With the imminent closure of pubs, cafes and restaurants, a rapid policy announcement was needed to avoid a cliff-edge of job losses. Further, the groups most likely to question the proposal – businesses and unions – had been consulted. They understood and supported the government’s ‘announce first’ strategy.

Early missteps might have been casualties of the fog of coronavirus war, but it is hard to keep writing off flashy but unachievable announcements on the basis that the government was unsure of which steps it needed to take. It is in the government’s own interests to think through the basic details of its proposals and talk to those who will deliver them before the prime minister takes to the Downing Street podium.

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