Comment

As a nation we thought we were good at stuff. It turns out we aren’t

Harking back to buccaneering adventurers only distracts from the sort of radical reboot Britain so desperately needs

We thought that, as a nation, we were good at stuff, even “world beating”.

So, apparently, did everyone else.

As recently as a year ago Britain was assessed by the Global Health Security Index to be second only to the United States both in its overall preparedness for an epidemic and in its rapid response and mitigation strategies.

That was then. The latest fiasco in test and trace, with 16,000 positive tests going missing, has heaped further ridicule on a growing catalogue of failings in the Government’s pandemic response.

This is particularly apparent in test and trace, which from the start has been dogged by wrong turns, shortages, laboratory and test centre inadequacies, technical difficulties, and poorly trained contact tracers.

Yet it is fair to say that these shortcomings are just a proxy for much wider failings in the Government’s Covid response, resulting in the worst per capita death rate of any major advanced economy, the worst hit to the economy, and the deepest impact on the public finances.

It’s been a profoundly humbling experience, much to the privately expressed delight of some of our Continental neighbours as we prepare finally to leave the EU single market. If Britain cannot respond competently to Covid, they say, what chance of making a success out of Brexit?

If ever there was a wake-up call, Covid is providing it in spades. A crisis that demands hard-headed professionalism has instead been met by the nonchalance of the gifted amateur, who delusionally imagines he can turn up on the day and win the Premier League without training or method.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister, with his references at the Conservative Party virtual conference this week to a bygone age of British maritime glory, seems determined to brush the realities aside. Indeed, it is this kind of cheerleading nonsense which is very much part of the problem. We can rightly be proud of our past, but too often it is used to anaesthetise the nation against the challenges and failures of the present.

Public Health England must, I suppose, be given credit for owning up to the latest mishap, allowing lessons to be learned; the temptation to cover things up must have been hard to resist.

Yet there is something distasteful about the Government’s growing penchant for scapegoating Whitehall officials and quangos for our current predicament.

PHE’s incompetent use of ancient spreadsheet technology feeds straight into the Government’s depiction of the civil service as a deeply flawed institution which is no longer fit for purpose. No doubt there is some truth in it. Yet buck-passing is scarcely likely to cure matters.

Often it makes them worse, resulting in a culture of shunned responsibility, so that, for instance, in the latest PHE failing, no one in authority questions the offending spreadsheets for fear it will make them culpable for results which later turn out to be wrong.

A famous management textbook has it that the fish rots from the head; ministers cannot so easily escape blame for what’s happened further down the supposed chain of command.

If Britain’s inadequacies as an economy were entirely confined to public sector administration, then a determined government might in time stand some chance of correcting the problem.

Yet similar deficiencies also infect the private sector, which with some notable exceptions, does not perform well on international measures of productivity, customer service, innovation and investment in the future. We similarly delude ourselves about its strengths.

The person in charge of test and trace, and now with setting up PHE’s successor body - as if simply replacing one organisation with another will solve the problem - is Dido Harding.

While at TalkTalk, Harding presided over one of the worst cases of data theft yet recorded. She was presumably appointed on the basis that this searing experience has taught her a valuable lesson, for it is hard to think of any other obvious qualification.

Dido Harding is the executive chair of NHS Test and Trace Credit: Andrew Parsons/EPA

Am I being too harsh? Possibly, yet we should not be lionising a private sector which little more than 10 years ago gave us the catastrophe of the financial crisis, requiring hundreds of billions of pounds worth of state bailouts.

Greed, rather than incompetence, was perhaps the defining feature of that particular collapse, yet the same air of mass delusion was also very much at the centre of things. We thought we were good at this stuff, best in class and all that, but it turned out that some of our biggest banks had been mismanaged all along.

Shortly after the crisis, the Association of Insurance and Risk Managers in Industry and Commerce (Airmic), published a report called Roads to Ruin, which looked at the underlying causes of 18 of the most catastrophic failures of risk management over the prior decade.

These were not primarily due to lack of compliance or regulation, the report concluded, but in almost every case, were the result of a breakdown in risk governance exacerbated by boardroom blindness to risk, or lack of understanding of it.

A second report called Roads to Resilience a few years later similarly attempted to find some common threads among companies that had proved particularly resilient to crisis.

Such companies will typically be constantly on the lookout for risk and vulnerabilities, and have well established channels for identifying and reporting them before they escalate into something bigger. There will also be a culture of bringing uncomfortable truths to senior management at an early stage, so that board decisions are well informed.

Too much risk aversion, and you stifle enterprise. The trick is rather to understand the risks so that early evasive action can be taken when they materialise.

Far from being unenterprising, resilient companies tend to be more responsive to their customers and the markets they serve, their staff and suppliers are motivated and loyal, they gain trust by being more dependable, and they achieve better results for shareholders.

We plainly need to be applying these same principles to the public sector. But perhaps first we should wake up and smell the coffee. Harking back to buccaneering adventurers such as Raleigh and Drake serves no purpose other than distracting from the sort of radical reboot the country so desperately needs.