A lack of strategy and accountability hampered government's initial COVID-19 response

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, according to a new Institute for Government report.

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.

This approach has been much criticised by experts and former politicians, who recognise that politics and policy cannot be untangled from the implementation and interpretation of scientific advice. The report found that 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

Furthermore, when 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.

Once it was clear that this target would not be consistently met by the date set by the health secretary, senior officials distanced themselves from the decision to reach 100,000 tests a day. 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

There were also errors in priorities, with government too focussed on alleviating concerns over NHS capacity rather than by controlling the spread of the virus, while little attention was paid to 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.

Sarah Nickson, researcher at the Institute for Government, said that “poor decision making is not an inevitable consequence of a crisis. But in a fast-moving situation, there may be little time or opportunity to fix early mistakes. That means that consulting fast and considering implementation at the outset are all the more crucial.”

As recent data sparks concerns of a second wave, the Institute for Government's report also provided recommendations for government to better deal with the crisis. 

Key areas for improvement surround clarity, both in terms of the extent to which it wants SAGE to incorporate social and economic concerns into its advice - while using this scientific advice to inform rather than dictate policy - and developing clear and public lines of responsibility for different departments and agencies where responsibilities overlap. 

Other important recommendations surrounded policy building, including using rapid consultation to build support for policies before their implementation - while reducing the risk of having to backtrack on them - and ensuring that targets are set after policies have been fully developed.

Alex Thomas, programme director at the Institute for Government, said:

The best decisions are made when the government knows not just what it wants to do, but why it wants to do it. At times, during its early response to the pandemic, the government lacked a wider sense of strategy. Greater focus on ‘why’ it was taking decisions – ultimately to save lives – would have led to better outcomes all round.