CORONAVIRUS | THE GOVERNMENT’S STRATEGY


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.

12 comments

  1. Can someone in the MSM ask wee krankie why Scotland, which has more in common with Sweden, in terms of population size and density is being more draconian in locking down it citizens that the Swedes are there’s. After all, the SNP run Scotland, including NHS Scotland so can’t blame the hated English for any cock ups.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Donna · ·

    They’ve made so many mistakes and cock-ups so far, I seriously think the mission has turned into “Save Ourselves.”

    ie continue with the plan and justify what we’ve done by whatever means, because if we don’t, we’ll be crucified at the next election.

    The Conservative Woman has written a blistering critique and I agree with every word of it:
    https://conservativewoman.co.uk/bottler-johnson-a-truly-terrifying-disappointment/

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The Government appear to have been frightened by Imperial College into a strategy that had a beginning and present, but no end game! The Swedes have picked up on this inconsistency of our strategy. The Nightingale hospitals look to have been a marketing exercise. Then there is the horror story of the computer code so carefully crafted by Mr Neil Ferguson and team at Imperial. There may be no scientists in the Government, but it also seems true when asked the question are there any people with a sound understanding of economics?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The elephant in the room is that the vast majority of politicians today have zero experience of hands on business, and compared to Civil Servants are pretty dim. They are also in thrall to academics who can run rings round them, and blind them with “Science”. STEM to them is the thing that holds a flower head up.Yes Minister was fact, not fiction.

    The one thing that they all have in common is a healthy dislike of making a decision – especially if it has their name attached to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Chris · ·

    I’ve always associated ‘Groupthink’ with those of the LeftyMetroLuvvieLiberal persuasion.
    In my ever-so-humble opinion, the Government is facing a far greater threat from it being undermined by a malevolent ‘5th Column’.
    “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
    (Joseph Goebbels)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. moraymint · ·

      Groupthink is politically blind, I feel sure Chris. It’s usually but not always associated with people grappling to deal with a crisis.

      I tend to agree that there are lots of people in politics and the media using the Covid-19 crisis as a weapon with which to attack the government for no other reason than to pursue their own political agendas. It’s extraordinary today the extent to which so many mainstream media outlets which purport to be ‘neutral’ are in fact unashamedly political …

      Like

      1. Chris · ·

        Hello, Moraymint.
        I was actually thinking more ideological than political.
        Anyway … as Burke’s quote goes …
        “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
        … and, as I commented elsewhere …
        Facebook > Fakebook > Factbook > BurnTheOtherBooksbook !!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve been convinced ever since the 3 month self employed payments were announced & committed to, that shutdown would be until early June. The Govt/exchequer have budgeted & planned for this – call this stage 1.
    As for the strategy after the stage 1 phase? There was no strategy at this point apart from shutdown until early June then exit afterwards.
    All strategic thoughts that a vaccine might be the hero must surely have been quickly eliminated as despite 72% of over 65’s having annual flu vaccines, 51,000 people still died in 2017/8. It is no guarantee of saving lives.
    So that only leaves the herd option during June – Oct as being the only practical strategy.
    They’ve already costed the economic pain until early June so they’ll accept this and are now running with it, despite calls to lift early.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. moraymint · ·

      I think the government is exceedingly cautious about allowing herd immunity to develop; hence its constant carping on about the ‘R’ (reproduction ratio) number. Yes, I think they did plan to bankroll the economy until the end of June as you say. However, it looks like they may have under-budgeted significantly. It was of course a cinch to get into lockdown. Getting out of it will be a whole new ballgame …

      Like

  7. deejaym · ·

    Another welcome & well considered article. Thank you

    Guvmint Strategy : For what its worth, I think they had a plan in place until Boris disappeared. The panic in the faces of Raab & Hancock was writ large at subsequent Pressers & they succumbed to the incessant screeching from the media (Morgan/Peston) to DO SOMETHING…….ANYTHING. Since then the policy seems to have been formulated on the back on an envelope…in pencil….with daily changes. In short, control of the narrative & confidence of the people has been lost. Can it be regained ? Looks unlikely.

    And of course you’re right. More people will die on the back of a cratered economy than ever will with this Chynese Virus.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thomas Taylor · ·

    If the groupthink goes on for long won’t outside forces then see that there’s effectively a veto for them to exercise if they can get enough influence over any of it’s members?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. moraymint · ·

      Yes, the government at the moment comprises just the PM and a tiny handful of ministers; that’s where all the decision-making is being done. Most of the cabinet and the rest of government are shut out. Parliament has been emasculated. It’s small wonder that the conditions for groupthink are ripe. It remains to be seen what might cause the decision-making process to be opened up and made more transparent …

      Like

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