World

Covid has exposed the weakness of Whitehall

15 May 2020

12:53 AM

15 May 2020

12:53 AM

Britain has long flattered itself that it leads the world in administration. But, as I write in the magazine this week, Covid-19 has highlighted just how far from being true that now is. It’s hard to argue that the UK has done much better than France, Spain and Italy, and we have clearly done worse than Germany. We are miles behind South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

This crisis has exposed the limitations of the UK’s government machine. One Whitehall veteran says that the ten days leading up to 23 March were ‘the nearest the wiring of the state has come to collapse. It wasn’t just blowing a fuse: the motherboard was beginning to melt down.’


Ministers need to be given more direct control over arms-length bodies such as Public Health England. At the same time, the Cabinet Office should become fully accountable — at the moment half of it is accountable to Michael Gove and the other half is a civil service fiefdom. The state will also need to become more comfortable working with the private sector. Key figures in government believe that this country will need to be able to carry out 500,000 tests a day if the lockdown is to be properly lifted — and there is no way that target can be hit without private sector involvement.

The debate in this country is too often about whether we want big or small government when what we really need is effective government. The British state needs rewiring for the 21st century if the system is not to melt down completely in the next crisis.

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