Working to make government more effective


The government's exit strategy is either poorly drafted or deliberately evasive

The government's plan for easing the lockdown lacks clarity and creates uncertainty

The government's plan for easing the lockdown lacks clarity and creates uncertainty, and runs the risk of the public losing confidence in the government’s decisions and ceasing to comply with its instructions, says Gemma Tetlow 

As we noted in our report at the end of April, the decisions that the government faces about when and how to lift the coronavirus economic and social restrictions are enormously difficult and have to be made in the face of huge uncertainty. We said then that there could be no single grand ‘exit plan’. But even acknowledging those difficulties, the document the government published on Monday fell well short.

The document (and accompanying pronouncements by the prime minister and his colleagues) leave glaring questions unanswered about what the government’s objectives are and how these will shape the path out of lockdown. This makes it impossible for the public and businesses to have any great certainty about how, when and why the various lockdown measures are likely to be rolled back.

Being clear about government objectives and the available evidence isn’t a ‘nice to have’, it is essential for businesses struggling to plan for a highly uncertain future and working out whether their organisation will continue to be viable, what adaptations might be needed, and how they can navigate the time from now until the spectre of coronavirus finally fades. There should also be a democratic imperative for the government to be clear about – and accountable for – the decisions and choices they are making in devising this exit strategy.

Is the government trading off different objectives, and if so how?

As long as there is no vaccine against coronavirus, the government faces a trade-off between containing the disease and minimising deaths from Covid-19 on the one hand and minimising other harms – such as to businesses, people’s livelihoods, mental health and wellbeing – on the other.

The document published on Monday provided the clearest statement yet that the government does have an eye to these wider issues, including considering how different harms affect different parts of the population. The document provides a – superficially fairly clear – statement that the government’s aim is to “return life to as close to normal as possible, for as many people as possible, as fast and fairly as possible…in a way that avoids a new epidemic, minimises lives lost and maximises health, economic and social outcomes.”

But in almost the same breath the document adds that the government’s “overriding priority” is “to save lives”. What is the public to make of that? If an action is likely to improve economic and social outcomes but would cost a few lives, what choice will the government make?

What is the link between government priorities and the planned phasing out of restrictions?

The document sets out the government’s current thinking on the sequence of changes to be made in lifting the restrictions. In principle, there should be a link between how the government is weighting different risks and which restrictions it chooses to ease first. But the document does little to spell this out.

Even in some of the more extreme and thus easier cases the document is not as clear as it could be. For example, people will almost immediately be allowed to exercise outdoors more frequently as long they maintain social distancing – because the “risk of transmission outdoors is significantly lower”. Unsaid, but presumably implied, is that such activity also has positive benefits for mental and physical health – two of the government’s other priorities – thus motivating the government’s decision to accept a small increase in the risk of transmission.

In more important but trickier cases the government’s reasoning is entirely unclear. The new guidance says that in step one, from Wednesday 13 May, “all workers who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open” and that “sectors of the economy that are allowed to open should be open”, but that “the rate of infection remains too high to allow the reopening of schools for all pupils yet”. Why has the government decided that now is the right time to reopen workplaces when it wasn’t three weeks ago? Why are schools being treated differently from other workplaces (including nurseries)? Is it because they are thought to pose a greater risk of spreading the disease? Because the economic or social benefits of opening schools are thought to be smaller than the benefits of opening other workplaces? Or for some other reason? And what evidence has informed those decisions?

The document claims that the “content and timing” of the following steps in removing the restrictions will “depend on the most up-to-date assessment of the risk posed by the virus”, an assessment against the government’s “five tests” – which relate to limiting the spread of and minimising deaths from Covid-19 – and must be “warranted” by the current alert level, which will be decided by the new Joint Biosecurity Centre. But without knowing why step one is happening when it is, why some measures made the cut in that first step and others did not and what evidence there was to support those distinctions, how can the public possibly predict what happens next?

The government’s approach risks undermining public trust and compliance

The government cannot remove all – or even most – of the uncertainty that businesses and individuals face. But it could have done far better than the document this week managed. What broad conditions will need to be met to allow the government to move to the next step of the process? Under what conditions would the government reimpose restrictions?

The document suggests that any further easing of measures must be “warranted” by the new JBC’s alert level, which provides an assessment of the level and rate of spread of the disease. But it does not set out a clear mapping between the alert status and the sets of restrictions that may be in place. This is presumably deliberate, allowing the government flexibility in its approach and allowing other unspecified factors to be taken into account as well.

But without being more open about why it has so far made the choices it has, the government risks undermining public trust in and compliance with the measures. People are understandably asking questions about apparently arbitrary or non-sensical distinctions in the new guidelines. Why, for example, is it ok to spend all day in relatively close proximity to co-workers but not to see both your parents at once? Is there evidence that carefully planned, controlled and sanitised workspaces pose a lower risk of disease transmission than social gatherings? Are the economic benefits of businesses operating believed to trump the social and wellbeing benefits of family interactions? If so, is that because there is strong evidence that the benefits to wellbeing of seeing your parents are small or simply because the government places less weight on this outcome than on boosting economic activity?

Much clearer thinking is needed from the government

It is hard to know whether the government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy is deliberately evasive or merely poorly drafted. More worrying still would be if the lack of clarity in the document mirrors a lack of clarity in the government’s thinking about how it is actually going to make decisions.

The document as it stands provides little useful guidance to the public on how the government is trading off different priorities or what to expect in terms of easing back the current set of social and economic restrictions beyond some of the immediate measures that are to come in this week. Given the high degree of uncertainty around the many factors that feed into these decisions, it was never going to be an easy message to convey. Even so, the government’s pronouncements so far fall short.

The prime minister and his cabinet colleagues will need to remedy these deficiencies in the coming days and weeks. If they do not, businesses and households will find it unnecessarily hard to plan for their futures and it will become increasingly likely that the public will lose confidence in the government’s decisions and cease to comply with instructions that look non-sensical and arbitrary.

Related content