This is another interim post squeezed in between Parts 1 and 2 of the series I’m publishing relating to the potential Covid-19 worst-case scenario. Part 2 will be published presently. Meantime, I realised as I was drafting the forthcoming post that the government’s strategy for tackling the Covid-19 pandemic was unclear. So, I decided to see if I could discern a strategy. I think I have and I explain it here.
As a British military officer, I was taught strategy: the importance of strategy for getting things done under control, and how to develop and implement strategy. I took this knowledge into my commercial career where eventually I worked as a company owner-director. I then took the same knowledge and my hands-on experience of strategy development and implementation into the third, semi-retired, phase of my life as a business consultant (currently on hold). I studied strategy formally at military staff colleges and as a central element of the curriculum for my Masters’ degree in Business Administration. For any organisation to have a strategy is very important.
Having a strategy for doing something doesn’t mean preparing a 100-page manual full of management-speak (although I have encountered some strategies like that). Some of the most profitable companies I’ve worked with as a management consultant had very brief strategic plans. Some had none at all other than a clear sense of direction and mission held by the chief executive and the board, communicated effectively to the company’s employees. My preference is always to have a written strategy, but what really matters is to have ‘a plan of action designed to achieve an aim’ (one definition of strategy).
The question is, what’s the British government’s strategy for tackling the Covid-19 pandemic? Not surprisingly perhaps, the government has never given a presentation along the lines of ‘The British Government’s Strategy for Tackling the Covid-19 Pandemic’. Politicians don’t do that sort of thing.
However, by observing the actions of an organisation it’s fairly straightforward to deduce its strategy. We can do this by looking at the actions of the British government. So, I want to describe what I think is the government’s strategy for tackling the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK.
The first principle of strategy is to select the organisation’s aim or mission and to stick to it unless the prevailing circumstances change significantly thereby demanding a change of mission. My first deduction (I’m tempted to say, ‘Holmes’ at this point) is that the British government’s Covid-19 pandemic mission is, ‘to minimise loss of life caused by Covid-19’ where Covid-19 is listed as either the cause of death, or present in the deceased at the time of death. This seems a reasonable mission at the advent of a pandemic not knowing the potential of the Covid-19 threat in this case, and in order to prevent large-scale casualties overwhelming the National Health Service (NHS). So far, so good.
The first weakness in the government’s strategy is that it’s by no means clear the timescale for minimising loss of life caused by Covid-19. The British people have been under ‘lockdown’ since 23 March (ie for some 7 weeks at the time of publishing this post), patiently tolerating the strictures imposed on living and working, and all underpinned by law. Is the government’s mission as I’ve assumed it to endure indefinitely or is there a milestone at which the government will say ‘we’ve achieved our mission of minimising Covid-19 casualties to N deaths per month and we’re now looking at a new mission’. What is the figure N? What is the government’s target for shifting its emphasis to governing for normality rather than governing for a crisis?
The government’s actions suggest that for now all it is doing is buying time. The question is, how much time does the government want? The UK is, according to the Bank of England, heading for the worst economic crisis in over 300 years. It’s reasonable then to ask when the government will turn its attention – in the form of its mission – from ‘minimising loss of life caused by Covid-19’ to something like, ‘to facilitating the recovery of UK society from the worst economic crisis in 300 years’. With each passing day under lockdown, the economic crisis grows.
The evidence suggests that the British government is buying time to achieve one or more objectives as follows: to implement widespread tracking, tracing and targeted isolation; to await the development and rollout of antibody testing; to facilitate herd immunity whilst minimising Covid-19 casualties; to await the development and rollout of a vaccine. All of those objectives are laudable and rational. However, the critical questions remain: what is the timescale and what are the measures of success?
You see at the moment the Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to paralyse the government into a form of groupthink. Groupthink is ‘a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Cohesiveness, or the desire for cohesiveness, in a group may produce a tendency among its members to agree at all costs. This causes the group to minimise conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation’.
I suggest that the British government is already operating in groupthink mode. It keeps saying that the government is being ‘led by the science’. One of the problems here is that 85% of the British political class has no interest or qualifications in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Bluntly, the majority of politicians are scientifically illiterate but – worryingly – say that they’re being ‘led by the science’. One wonders what critical faculties the government is bringing to bear on the reams of scientific data being put before them as the basis for making what must ultimately be political decisions? If the science is not being reviewed critically and within a political framework, we may as well hand over the running of the country to the NHS. You see, I don’t want to be governed ‘by science’; I want to be governed by elected politicians doing politics and economics, especially the latter.
Another problem with the government being ‘led by the science’ is that the science is, when all’s said and done, medical science. OK, it’s epidemiology, but in the end, we’re talking about medicine and saving people’s lives. And therein lies the rub, because medics are guided at all times by the maxim ‘primum non nocere’: first, do no harm. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that if the government is being ‘led by the science’ and the science is underpinned by the principle of ‘first, do no harm’, then we could end up spending the rest of our lives in lockdown. I exaggerate for effect, but you get my meaning. What is the timescale for the mission of minimising Covid-19 casualties, and how will we know when the mission is achieved? At the moment we’re in a kind of Groundhog Day which is unsustainable given that the UK economy is now being cratered.
So, in conclusion, I think the government’s implied strategy comprises a set of plans to pursue health and technical solutions for preventing people from dying of or with Covid-19 until a vaccine is available. Concurrently, the government is prepared to allow herd immunity to develop at a glacial pace (to prevent a high casualty rate), but has no target for an acceptable, steady-state number of Covid-19 deaths. The strategy is guided primarily not by economic imperatives, but rather by the principle of ‘first, do no harm’. This was understandable when Covid-19 arrived in our society, but the longer the government is ‘led by the science’ than by harsh politico-economic realities, the more long-term damage will be done to our way of life.
Any idea that we can spend weeks, months or even a year or longer applying the ‘stay safe’ procedures we’re applying today and at the same time recover the economy from its worst hit in 300 years is for the fairies.
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See you down the pub … eventually.