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Decision making in a crisis: First responses to the coronavirus pandemic

This report examines decisions made in three areas: economic support, Covid-19 testing and the lockdown.

Boris Johnson, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance at coronavirus press conference

The government’s initial response to the Covid-19 crisis was hampered by the absence of a long-term strategy, lack of clarity about who was responsible for what and its poor use of evidence.

This report examines decisions made in three areas: economic support, Covid-19 testing and the lockdown.

It highlights the chancellor’s economic support measures as an example of policy based on clear objectives and developed after working closely with scheme users.

But when making decisions on lockdown, the report finds, ministers relied too much on an illusion that “following the science” would provide the answers. Waiting for certainty from SAGE, itself struggling to get timely data, deferred decisions on lockdown.

And in making his commitment to hit 100,000 tests a day, the health secretary did not give enough thought to what the target – set without input from local public health officials, the diagnostics industry or the testing co-ordinator – was intended to achieve and how. This meant the target became a distraction from equally important matters like making it easier for NHS staff to access testing.

The report also identifies how:

  • The government needed to be clearer about the role of science advice and its limitations, particularly in the early stages of the crisis when it looked to its scientists to generate policy, not just advise on it
  • Government decisions were influenced too much by concerns over NHS capacity rather than by controlling the spread of the virus
  • Senior officials distanced themselves from the decision to reach 100,000 tests a day, and it was unclear who was responsible for different aspects of the testing regime, which made it difficult to assign responsibility for remedying gaps and failures
  • The government did not think about some of the most important aspects of how it would implement its policies until after it had announced them, leaving many public services, in particular schools and the police, playing catch up.

It recommends that the government should:

  • Be clearer about the extent to which it wants SAGE to incorporate social and economic concerns into its advice
  • Clearly identify the responsibilities of different departments and agencies where those responsibilities overlap
  • Use rapid consultation to build support for policies and avoid the need for U-turns
  • Use scientific advice to inform rather than determine policy
  • Develop its strategy before setting targets that will be hard to resile from.
Health NHS
Institute for Government

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