England’s over-centralisation – Part 2: It IS instinctive

Chris Game

There was much in Jessica Studdert’s recent blog to agree with and applaud, but one sentence particularly struck me – the one opening her fourth paragraph: “The centralised response isn’t just structural, at times it has felt deeply instinctive.”.

So, equally instinctively, I did what even an erstwhile academic does during a lockdown – some heavyweight research, naturally. Like re-watching and content analysing the first 69 Government Covid-19 daily press conferences – one of those crisis features that, like the Thursday evening clapping, lives on because no one knows quite how to stop it.

I exaggerated with the ‘heavyweight’ bit, but I did count – sorry, totalise – the press conferences. So, first question: Which minister, Johnson excepted, was the first to front one?

No, not Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. As First Secretary of State, he stood in while Johnson was hospitalised, but was actually eighth minister to feature. Surely, then, Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock. Nope, though he and his permanent pink tie have currently clocked up more appearances than Johnson himself.

Struggling? Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak? Hardly Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – for all the considerations touched on in Studdert’s blog. Surely not Home Secretary Priti Patel, despite being apparently the only woman minister capable of reading from a lectern.

They’ve done four, five and three respectively, but the shooting star we are looking for is Environment, FOOD and Rural Affairs Secretary, George Eustice. How short are our memories. His brief includes the so-called food supply chain, and this was late March – panic-buying, pasta-hoarding weekend.

Now the seriously tricky question. How many winning elections to serve as a plain local government councillor – not London Mayor – have all 12 featured Ministers fought between them? Maybe not a huge number? One!

One four-year term of elected local government experience between the lot of them. It was served by then 24-year old Gavin Williamson, now Education Secretary, giving English primary schools his considered judgement on when they should reopen.

It’s easy to mock – really easy – but there are archive pictures of Williamson doing his thing as North Yorkshire County Council’s ‘Champion of Youth Issues’ . Making him, I believe, alone among that TV-trusted Cabinet dozen to have even minimal first-hand insight into how local government operates in the policy field for which he is responsible.

The others can tell you lots, variously, about banking (Hancock), hedge fund management (Sunak), litigation (Raab), corporate finance (Alok Sharma), corporate law (Jenrick), public relations (Eustice, Patel), journalism (Johnson, Gove), marketing (Grant Shapps), Conservative Central Office (Patel, Oliver Dowden).

But actually experiencing what they presumably aspired to do – campaigning, meeting constituents, getting elected, representing people, learning about the provision and funding of public services, the whole government and public administration thing – for some reason never grabbed them or even struck them as career-relevant.

Which today means they know virtually nothing at first-hand about some of the vital stuff local governments do, often to the unawareness of even their own publics: emergency contingency planning, air quality monitoring, water testing, pest control, health and safety at work inspection – oh yes, and communicable disease investigation and outbreak control.

Time for a brief digression on the changing meaning of the word ‘nuisance’. It was one of my mother’s favourite words, applied frequently to my sister and myself, but to almost any usually minor upset to her daily life routine. Mask-wearing and disinfecting supermarket trolley handles would be a ‘nuisance’, not the wretched pandemic itself.

Yet the etymology of ‘nuisance’ is the Latin ‘nocere’ – to harm – and its original 15th Century meaning could quite conceivably be applied to Covid-19 and its capacity to inflict serious and even fatal harm.

The mid-19th Century predecessor of today’s Director of Public Health in Birmingham, Dr Justin Varney, would therefore have boasted the title of Nuisance Inspector – his nuisance agenda including factory air pollution, small-pox and cholera outbreaks, and sanitation, with the first generation of public urinals.

Nuisance Inspectors could not by themselves transform towns and cities, but they played a huge part. As do their modern-day successors – Public or Environmental Health Inspectors. Those successors, however – the ones that have survived the past decade of local government funding and employment cuts – could and should, as Studdert noted, have been doing even more.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health reckons there are some 5,000 Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) working in UK local councils. All have job descriptions including responsibilities like “investigating outbreaks of infectious diseases and preventing them spreading further.”

That’s what they do – test, track, trace and treat people with anything from salmonella to sexually transmitted diseases – in areas, moreover, with which they are totally familiar and have networks of contacts. ‘Shoe-leather epidemiology’ is the technical term – seriously.

So presumably, as in other countries – South Korea, Singapore, Germany, Ireland – these EHOs will have been reassigned from other work and spent their time contact tracing?

Rhetorical question – we all know the answers. From early March, contrary to World Health Organisation guidelines, our Government’s big ideas were to ‘delay’ the spread of Covid-19, then develop vital (now less vital) smartphone apps.

This enabled the consequently limited scale of contact-tracing to be undertaken centrally by staff newly recruited by Public Health England – the executive agency of Matt Hancock’s Health and Social Care Department created in the ill-conceived NHS upheaval in 2012.

Insufficient, inexperienced staff doing a job crying out for the skills, knowledge and contacts of council EHOs, who instead were monitoring social distancing rules in pubs, clubs and restaurants.

There are almost always costs in ‘keeping it central’, but, as we have seen, for so many ministers, it must be instinctive. It’s all they and most of their civil servants know at first hand. The alternative would be funding and at least sharing data with pesky local authorities, thereby losing some of their precious control.

Finally, last weekend, all other options exhausted, the Government did allocate a ring-fenced £300 million to English councils to play a leading role, starting immediately, in tracking and tracing people suspected of being at risk of Covid-19.

This time, tragically, the cost of blinkered, prejudiced, self-protective government was paid in lives.

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