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COVID-19: ‘Revolution’ needed in UK government after coronavirus pandemic, former civil service chief says

Written by on 31 May 2021

The UK’s coronavirus failures have revealed the need for a “revolution in the way we run this country”, a former head of the civil service has said.

Whitehall needs to be “more agile” and “we crucially need to be more prepared”, Lord Kerslake told Sky News.

While stressing that he was not attacking Whitehall, which does “a lot of things extraordinarily well”, Lord Kerslake – who previously advised former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – added: “In 2019 we thought we were one of the best prepared countries in the world for a pandemic – we clearly weren’t.”

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Ex-civil service head on Cummings criticism

He also said we should be “grateful” for the evidence Dominic Cummings – Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser – gave to MPs last week.

Appearing on the Trevor Phillips On Sunday programme, Lord Kerslake said communications had been a “major issue” during the pandemic.

“We weren’t even allowed to know who was on the SAGE [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] committee, never mind what it was actually saying and doing,” he pointed out.

“I think there is nothing short of a revolution needed in the way we run this country – it’s about how politicians conduct themselves, but it is also about how our public servants do their role as well.”

Discussing Dominic Cummings, Lord Kerslake said that while he had been a “vocal critic” of him, he had “learnt a lot” from his seven hours of evidence.

Mr Cummings alleged there was a delay in announcing the first lockdown last March because “there wasn’t a plan in place”.

In the same month, Mr Cummings also said there was “no functioning data system” to monitor COVID-19 infections, adding that NHS England chief Sir Simon Stevens read out “on scraps of paper” the number of patients in intensive care units.

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21 June ‘too early’ to lift restrictions

Assessing Mr Cummings’s contribution, Lord Kerslake said: “We should in a sense be grateful that we’ve had this oral indication of just how things actually worked behind the Number 10 door and there were I’m afraid some serious failings – it has to be recognised.

“The focus has been on the political failings but there are also lessons that have to be learned for the civil service and indeed for the whole of the government machine as well.”

Lord Kerslake said he was concerned about “complacence and arrogance, the so-called British exceptionalism that we’re always going to be the best” and called for a “sense of humility”.

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, claimed Boris Johnson had shown an “inability to govern in a rational, clear, sensible way – to appreciate systems, to work with those systems”.

Asked whether he found the civil service responsible and effective during his time in Downing Street, he told Trevor Phillips: “Yes, there were some who were difficult, yes there were some who weren’t very good at their job, but a lot of them were.

“When there was clear direction from ministers, I think actually the civil service was broadly responsive.”

He added: “I think one of the problems in the pandemic has been the relentlessness of the mixed messaging – people not really knowing what they are meant to be saying, what they’re meant to be doing.”

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Hancock did ‘best possible job’ – Zahawi

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi – also speaking to Trevor Phillips – defended the government’s response to the pandemic.

Dominic Cummings was scathing about the spread of COVID in care homes.

But Mr Zahawi insisted the government had done its best to protect care homes and said both testing and protecting those in them were priorities.

However, the UK had to work within the available resources, he added.

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