In a crisis, the default response of the British state is: command and control. Centralise power, organise everything on a big scale, impose “on-size-fits-all” rules.
It happened on a massive scale in the two world wars, and it is happening again, on a lesser scale, in the current crisis.
Take a highly symbolic example: the “National Help Service” initiative. The government appealed centrally for volunteers to help the NHS. They set up a national registration scheme, online. Within a few days they had 750,000 volunteers.
Then, as some wag on Twitter commented, somewhere in Whitehall there must have been a civil servant sat scratching their head and asking themselves: “What the hell do we do with these three-quarters of a million names?”
Big testing centres
Another example is the issue of testing for the virus. There are dozens of laboratories across the UK capable of doing this testing – in the public, private and third sectors, including universities.
Instead of utilising this capacity, Public Health England, who are responsible for coordinating testing, decided to centralise everything. Initially, they centred everything on a handful of their own laboratories. This massively limited capacity.
But they had a plan – to build three big testing facilities, from scratch. The first is in Milton Keynes, and the other two are at Alderley Park in Cheshire, and in Glasgow.
(On a personal note, Alderley Park is where I started my working life in 1969. Back then it was an ICI Pharmaceuticals research centre and I worked as a Lab Technician in their toxicology labs.)
Not surprisingly there are long lead-times in setting up such facilities, even where, as at Alderley, there is some existing capacity.
Very belatedly, the strategy switched in late March or early April to include the decentralised university and private labs as it became clear the UK was reaching nowhere near the level of testing necessary.
But by then the UK had lost weeks in ramping up testing to the levels seen in many other countries.
A third obvious example are the flagship Nightingale hospitals – the most prominent being the ExCel centre in London.
The huge size of the London facility – 4,000 beds – and the speed of its setup provided beleaguered Ministers with lots of photo-ops and something tangible to show “something was being done”.
Building the facility in the empty shell of the ExCel conference centre was the easy bit – after all, it is not that different from conference set-ups that take place frequently in normal times.
That is not to detract from the excellent work of the army in solving some complex problems, but setting it up and running it are two very different challenges.
As reported in the Financial Times (04/04/20), the first tranche of patients alone would mean over 1,000 staff being redeployed from existing London hospitals, along with lots of equipment and supplies.
This from an NHS that already had 96,000 vacancies last year in a workforce of 1.1 million (nearly 9 per cent), according to the King’s Fund. This has been made more challenging by large numbers of health workers self-isolating because of suspected Covid-19 infections.
As many commented, this was in danger of robbing Peter to pay Paul, as much-needed resources are stripped from already over-stretched existing capacity.
The fourth and final example of a “big government” response are the rules promulgated to try and contain the virus. Again, it has been a one-size-fits-all approach.
Despite the very different nature of the outbreaks in urban and rural areas, or between different regions, one uniform set of rules has been attempted for everywhere, with some predictably bureaucratic absurdities and excesses as a result.
Centralisation matters, but so does localisation
The urge to centralise is in many ways a sensible one. There are a lot of things that require action from national government – marshalling big resources and imposing emergency changes are steps that only it can take.
But this misses an important aspect of an epidemic like this – it is not uniform.
It is both national – indeed global – but it is also local. This is most obvious in big countries like Canada, China and the US, where the outbreaks of Covid-19 have been massively variable across their territories, with some areas barely affected while others are huge hotspots.
I am currently conducting a series of discussions with government experts across the globe on how different governments are responding to the crisis (available on YouTube).
Interviews with colleagues in Canada and the US show not only that the virus is diverse in its spread, but so is the reaction of governments – especially different layers of government.
So, for example, the outbreak in Canada started in British Colombia. The provincial government – rather like the New Zealand government – went “fast and hard” with mass testing, tracing, isolations and lockdowns where needed. The results have been impressive.
The full story from China is yet to be told, but there are some early indications that the relationship between central and local levels of government was important – both positively and negatively. Denmark, with very strong local government working in partnership with central, also seems to be doing some really good things.
In the UK, one remarkable feature of the current crisis has been the degree of local self-organisation. In the absence of central or local government managing to provide adequately for people in self-isolation, local groups have mushroomed, using Facebook and other platforms to organise themselves.
The weakness of local government is also notable. Despite herculean efforts by local leaders and some extra money being put back into them, decades of underfunding, stripping of powers and most recently austerity have left them very weak in the face of this crisis.
Instead of becoming the real local hubs for coordinating public, private and civil society efforts, they have been relatively powerless and denuded of capacity. They have neither the powers nor the resources to act as effectively as they could.
Nor, and this crucial, to develop local responses to the local nature of the crisis. One-size-fits-all solutions imposed from Whitehall are a clumsy response at local levels – something proper local government could have helped solve.
Some of the “reforms” of recent decades, like Police and Crime Commissioners, have proved their utter futility in a crisis which is both national and highly local.
So one of the things that ought to come out of this crisis is a reconsideration of the balance between the central and the local.
Unfortunately, the lesson of British history is that it won’t. “Temporary” centralising measures that were adopted in the two world wars often became permanent. The weakening of local government has gone on for over a century.
I have often said that all public services are local. With a few necessary exceptions, most things governments do can be organised locally.
In Denmark, most national taxes and benefits are collected and distributed by local government, which fundamentally changes the balance of power within government as a whole. It has its own problems, as do any human institutions. But it does show there are alternatives to the UK’s massively centralised state.
We ought to be deliberating, seriously, about the lessons for the structure of the British state and government. Radically rebalancing the central and the local is now more needed than ever, and not just to deal with crises.
So far, in the heat of the current crisis, the signs are not good that we will.
Colin Talbot is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Manchester, and a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge.