On the 23rd March 2020, the UK Government’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared: ‘From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home’. He announced measures to help limit the impact of COVID-19 , including new regulations on behaviour, police powers to support public health, budgetary measures to support businesses and workers during their economic inactivity, the almost-complete closure of schools, and the major expansion of healthcare capacity via investment in technology, discharge to care homes, and a consolidation of national, private, and new health service capacity (note that many of these measures relate only to England, with devolved governments responsible for public health in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales). Overall, the coronavirus prompted almost-unprecedented policy change, towards state intervention, at a speed and magnitude that seemed unimaginable before 2020.
Yet, many have criticised the UK government’s response as slow and insufficient. Criticisms include that UK ministers and their advisors did not:
- take the coronavirus seriously enough in relation to existing evidence (when its devastating effect was increasingly apparent in China in January and Italy from February)
- act as quickly as some countries to test for infection to limit its spread, and/ or introduce swift measures to close schools, businesses, and major social events, and regulate social behaviour (such as in Taiwan, South Korea, or New Zealand)
- introduce strict-enough measures to stop people coming into contact with each other at events and in public transport.
They blame UK ministers for pursuing a ‘mitigation’ strategy, allegedly based on reducing the rate of infection and impact of COVID-19 until the population developed ‘herd immunity’, rather than an elimination strategy to minimise its spread until a vaccine or antiviral could be developed. Or, they criticise the over-reliance on specific models, which underestimated the R (rate of transmission) and ‘doubling time’ of cases and contributed to a 2-week delay of lockdown.
Many cite this delay, compounded by insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) in hospitals and fatal errors in the treatment of care homes, as the biggest contributor to the UK’s unusually high number of excess deaths (Campbell et al, 2020; Burn-Murdoch and Giles, 2020; Scally et al, 2020; Mason, 2020; Ball, 2020; compare with Freedman, 2020a; 2020b and Snowden, 2020).
In contrast, scientific advisers to UK ministers have emphasised the need to gather evidence continuously to model the epidemic and identify key points at which to intervene, to reduce the size of the peak of population illness initially, then manage the spread of the virus over the longer term (e.g. Vallance). Throughout, they emphasised the need for individual behavioural change (hand washing and social distancing), supplemented by government action, in a liberal democracy in which direct imposition is unusual and, according to UK ministers, unsustainable in the long term.
We can relate these debates to the general limits to policymaking identified in policy studies (summarised in Cairney, 2016; 2020a; Cairney et al, 2019) and underpinning the ‘governance thesis’ that dominates the study of British policymaking (Kerr and Kettell, 2006: 11; Jordan and Cairney, 2013: 234).
First, policymakers must ignore almost all evidence. Individuals combine cognition and emotion to help them make choices efficiently, and governments have equivalent rules to prioritise only some information.
Second, policymakers have a limited understanding, and even less control, of their policymaking environments. No single centre of government has the power to control policy outcomes. Rather, there are many policymakers and influencers spread across a political system, and most choices in government are made in subsystems, with their own rules and networks, over which ministers have limited knowledge and influence. Further, the social and economic context, and events such as a pandemic, often appear to be largely out of their control.
Third, even though they lack full knowledge and control, governments must still make choices. Therefore, their choices are necessarily flawed.
Fourth, their choices produce unequal impacts on different social groups.
Overall, the idea that policy is controlled by a small number of UK government ministers, with the power to solve major policy problems, is still popular in media and public debate, but dismissed in policy research .
Hold the UK government to account via systematic analysis, not trials by social media
To make more sense of current developments in the UK, we need to understand how UK policymakers address these limitations in practice, and widen the scope of debate to consider the impact of policy on inequalities.
A policy theory-informed and real-time account helps us avoid after-the-fact wisdom and bad-faith trials by social media.
UK government action has been deficient in important ways, but we need careful and systematic analysis to help us separate (a) well-informed criticism to foster policy learning and hold ministers to account, from (a) a naïve and partisan rush to judgement that undermines learning and helps let ministers off the hook.
To that end, I combine insights from policy analysis guides, policy theories, and critical policy analysis to analyse the UK government’s initial coronavirus policy. I use the lens of 5-step policy analysis models to identify what analysts and policymakers need to do, the limits to their ability to do it, and the distributional consequences of their choices.
I focus on sources in the public record, including oral evidence to the House of Commons Health and Social Care committee, and the minutes and meeting papers of the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) (and NERVTAG), transcripts of TV press conferences and radio interviews, and reports by professional bodies and think tanks.