‘Chaotic’ decision-making behind the UK’s mismanaged response to the pandemic

By David Donaldson

Monday February 1, 2021

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The UK government has done a terrible job of managing the pandemic. Clearer strategic direction and improved relationships between advisors and ministers could have helped.

The United Kingdom has now passed 100,000 deaths in the coronavirus pandemic, the first country in Europe to do so. The UK currently has the fifth-worst recorded death toll in the world, sitting just behind the much larger nations of the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico.

That grim milestone prompted Prime Minister Boris Johnson to say he was “deeply sorry for every life that has been lost”, stating that “as Prime Minister, I take full responsibility for everything the government has done.”

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Astoundingly, after being heavily criticised for poor decisions early in the outbreak, the British government repeated the same mistakes more recently, again overseeing a significant jump in case numbers.

It’s a surprising outcome in a country known for its intellectual output and one of the best civil services in the world.

In an attempt to understand the root of the problem, London-based think tank the Institute for Government published two reports at the end of last year looking at science advice and decision-making in a crisis.

It’s clear there are a range of issues. One of these is a lack of strategic direction from Cabinet.

“Decision making at the centre of government was too often chaotic and ministers failed to clearly communicate their priorities to science advisers,” who struggled to answer “poorly formulated questions”, says the institute.

Unsure what they were trying to achieve, ministers relied on the government’s scientific advisory council “to fill the gap in government strategy and decision making that was not its role to fill”:

“One interviewee described the conversation between ministers and SAGE [the scientific advisory council] as circular: “Ministers said: ‘What should we do?’ and scientists said: ‘Well, what do you want to achieve?’” Some back and forth is necessary to refine questions, but scientists said ministers’ objectives remained unclear throughout the crisis.”

Ministers repeated the mantra that they were ‘following the science’, treating science “as a source of ‘answers’ to the questions with which the government was grappling, rather than an input into wider policy discussions”. While scientific advice undoubtedly plays an outsized role in a pandemic, it still needs to be placed alongside social, economic and other political considerations when coming to a decision. But instead of recognising this distinction and taking ownership for decisions as a Cabinet, ministers blurred the line between ‘the science’ and policy, in turn muddying ministerial accountability. Some scientific advisors believe the politicians were “hiding behind a cloak of science” and setting up the scientists up as scapegoats.

At any rate, the government has not always listened to scientific advisers anyway. It did not consult the scientific advisory council on the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, encouraging people to go to restaurants through subsidised meals — a policy that studies suggest caused a “significant” increase in infections. For six weeks it also ignored calls for a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown, a decision that likely contributed to the current major outbreak.

Different strands of advice to Cabinet were not properly integrated into coherent recommendations, either, with economic and public health inputs largely being developed and presented separately. It is difficult for ministers to make decisions if the Treasury and SAGE offer differing analyses of the pandemic, for example, or economic effects have not been fully considered in the health advice. To overcome this, the Institute for Government recommends developing a decision-making framework to provide a structure for effectively integrating different types of advice.

Ministers often lack an appropriate understanding of scientific ideas such as probability and uncertainty. This can lead to ministers misinterpreting tentative results as certain — one factor that led the UK government to incorrectly maintain for a long time that mad cow disease was not harmful to humans. Ministers need a “scientific mindset” if they are to ask the right questions and understand scientific advice, argues chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

They also need good scientific advisors, of course, but the institute finds that the relationship does not always function effectively. Faced with complex information about the pandemic, many ministers absorbed scientific discourse passively, rather than having the skills to effectively challenge and improve advice. Some advisors reported ministers “glazing over” when presented with evidence, or hiding their lack of understanding, concerned about looking dumb in front of the experts. Advisors also engaged in self-censorship based on assumptions about what politicians would accept — the delay in implementing the first lockdown was influenced by scientists who believed it would be politically unpalatable, for example. Building up better relationships between ministers and advisers — ideally before the crisis starts — can help make this process more effective.

Communications has been a big problem for the British government. Major policy shifts such as lockdowns have often been briefed to journalists on background, resulting in public anxiety and confusion. The government’s public communications around risk have also been confusing.

“Ministers have switched back and forth between alarm and reassurance, while failing to drive home key messages, such as the risk of gathering in indoor and poorly ventilated settings,” the institute argues. One SAGE member told the institute:

“Generally, communication of risk has been absent: the comms has lurched from ‘we’re all going to die’ to ‘it will all be fine’.”

This chopping and changing ultimately arose out of the government’s uncertainty about its strategic direction — following the first lockdown, the government started encouraging people to mix through the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and has since lurched back into lockdown.

A lack of transparency about the advice on which policy was formulated has tested public trust. As in Australia, decisions to reopen schools have been controversial, exacerbated at times by a dearth of public explanation or published evidence. Increased transparency can help — though ensuring ministers understand the evidence, and scientists have the media training to adequately explain it, is vital to ensuring this increases trust that the government knows what it is doing.

A lack of leadership by the prime minister when it was discovered that high profile chief adviser Dominic Cummings had breached lockdown restrictions also significantly undermined public trust in the government. Many in the British policymaking world believe such obvious rule-breaking probably undermined public compliance.

A lack of diversity and groupthink among advisors has been another common feature of previous crises, the institute notes — for example, the omission of human health experts on the mad cow disease advisory committee is seen as one contributor to the British government’s incorrect insistence at the time that the disease was not harmful to humans. Groupthink can be addressed by more consistently applying the technique of ‘red teaming’ — building into decision-making groups that are tasked with finding a weakness in a proposal or system.

Looking back at how decisions were made in the early part of the pandemic, the institute concluded that decisions “work best when the government knows not just what it wants to do, but why it wants to do it”, that science advice “should inform, not make, policy” and that ministers needed to better understand the limits of science advice.

“Poor decision making is not an inevitable consequence of a crisis. With the right inputs, the government machine is capable of fast and responsive action.”

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