Our Whitehall insider imagines what’s going on inside the minds of the mandarins at Great Minster House, home of the DfT

When the chancellor of the exchequer has the courage to admit that we are going to experience a recession “the like of which we have never seen before” you can bet your bottom dollar that we are in for some really turbulent times ahead. I hope the economic price we are going to pay – for years and years – for the lockdown is worth it, because when the inevitable inquiry comes into the government’s handling of the pandemic I have a strong hunch there will many medical experts, economists and many other academics who will come forward with plenty of evidence that it wasn’t. I suspect our prime minister and a few other cabinet ministers besides, notably the heath secretary Matt Hancock, will be having many sleepless nights when the inquiry comes along.

The transport sector has been devastated by this lockdown. It’s going to take years for the aviation sector to recover, and I question whether patronage on public transport will return to pre-lockdown levels, potentially putting the viability of the commercial bus market at risk. I hope the transport sector hasn’t paid an unnecessarily high price.

I labour the point because on more than one occasion I have heard eminent scientists claim that, actually, the virus had been in the community for some months before Europe started to lock down and that we had already developed a high level of “heard immunity” from the virus before any action was taken. We also know that the sector of the population most at risk from dying from the virus are those over the age of 70, with those aged 80 or over the most at risk. For the vast majority of the population the risk of dying from this disease is tiny – many an academic has said that most of us are more likely to die prematurely in a car accident or from accidents at home. Life is inherently risky, yet we seem to have become scared of our collective shadow.

I know this is of no comfort to those who are at high risk from the virus and to those who have indeed lost friends and family from it. I know it sounds uncaring and unsympathetic. I am emphatically not – and I have witnessed at first hand the effect it can have as my next-door neighbour, who is only 50, got it bad and was in a coma for 41 days. He survived – just – thanks to the brilliance of the doctors and nurses who treated him. But these issues will be discussed at the inevitable inquiry and we can not shy away from the facts and from the truth. I think we are entitled to an honest, transparent and evidence-based answer to the question I posed at the beginning: is the huge economic (and social) price we are paying for the lockdown, and will pay for many years to come, worth it or is it too high? That question can’t be ducked. Our transport operators whose businesses have been hammered by this, are entitled to know the truth.

Given what the chancellor of the exchequer has said about the scale of the recession to come, the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review is going to be bloody

Indeed, all of us are because of the huge economic price to be paid – by all of us. Given what the chancellor of the exchequer has said about the scale of the recession to come, the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review is going to be bloody. In this context I understand the government has appointed McKinsey to carry out a two-month review into a number of core government capabilities, including: the role and structure of the Cabinet Office; the proper responsibilities of departments; resilience and preparedness; procurement; innovation and ability to act flexibly and quickly; expertise; and centralisation versus devolution.

I can’t wait to see what McKinsey has to say – although I have a strong hunch that the report won’t be published and will be kept to a very tight circle. I’m told that the review will report to Michael Gove and the newly appointed permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and chief operating officer of the Civil Service, Alex Chisholm, and that it will inform the spending review which will, in turn, reflect the capability and capacity of government departments and their agencies to deliver on priorities. I’m especially interested in that part of the review which will look at the proper responsibilities of departments. This smacks to me of some kind of machinery of government review and possible reform of Whitehall and the restructuring of departments. It wouldn’t be the first time that the structure of Whitehall has been looked at of course – there are always rumours about a possible reform of Whitehall, slimming down the number of departments and all the rest. But if it’s a formal part of McKinsey’s remit to look at the proper responsibilities of departments then I have a strong hunch that there really is a desire to see some real reform of Whitehall. Doubtless Dominic Cummings’ fingerprints are all over this!

The review comes at a critical time and is, perhaps, a reflection of No 10’s recognition that the civil service is not properly equipped, in terms of skills and structures, to deal with the economic tsunami that is about to overwhelm us. I hope that No 10 and the Cabinet Office have the courage to publish McKinsey’s report it when it is submitted.


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