Posts Tagged ‘covid-19’

How effectively have governments responded to COVID-19 so far?

Theologos Dergiades, Costas Milas, and Theodore Panagiotidis take stock of how governments across the world have dealt with the pandemic. Their research provides further evidence of a strong relationship between the eventual number of deaths and the strength and timing of government interventions.

The spread of COVID-19 seems to be slowing down in many countries. Governments have employed a number of measures to reach this stage. In economic terms, month-long lockdowns are pushing the world economy into recession. The OECD predicts that each month major economies spend in lockdown will remove two percentage points from the annual GDP growth. The International Monetary Fund predicts that global growth will fall by 3% in 2020. The Bank of England forecasts that the crisis will result in the deepest UK recession in 300 years. In fact, the situation appears so grim that the Bank of England is considering negative interest rates for the first time ever.

At the same time, research flags the damaging effects caused by the lack of mitigation actions for the economy – as the infection spreads to workers, failure to mitigate its peak may trigger very large upfront costs in terms of output, consumption, and investment.

In new research, we used daily data on COVID-19-related deaths for 32 countries between January and April 2020 to assess the relationship between deaths and government interventions. Using statistical tests, we were able to identify a break in the growth rate of deaths country by country. Our findings suggest that for the UK, the ‘structural break’ in the growth rate of deaths occurred on 3 April; between one and two weeks after that for other European countries including Italy, France, Spain and the Netherlands. We also estimate that deaths in the UK grew by an average of 21.6% per day up to 3 April, after which it was suppressed to zero.

We then assessed the impact of government interventions on the average growth rate of deaths. To do so, we used the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) index which quantifies the stringency of policies adopted across the various countries. The index on any given day and country is the average of nine sub-indices: school closures, workplace closures, cancellation of public events, restrictions on gathering size, closure of public transport, stay at home requirements, restrictions on internal movement, restrictions on international travel, and public information campaign. Each of these takes a value between 0 and 100, with a higher value indicating more stringency.

As seen in Figure 1, stringency measures in China increased steeply in late January 2020. Among other countries, stringency measures in Italy increased significantly in late February. Only after that followed Spain, France, the UK and the US.

The countries are: Argentina (AR), Austria (AT), Belgium (BE), Brazil (BR), Canada (CA), Chile (CL), China (CN), Denmark (DK), Egypt (EG), France(FR), Germany (DE), Greece (GR), Indonesia (ID), Iran (IR), Ireland (IE), Israel (IL), Italy (IT), Japan (JP), South Korea (KR), Malaysia (MY), the Netherlands (NL), Norway (NO), Panama (PA), Philippines (PH), Portugal (PT), Saudi Arabia (SA), Spain (ES), Sweden (SE), Switzerland (CH), Turkey (TR), United Kingdom (GB) and United States (US).

Using this index, we were able to confirm that the greater the strength of government intervention at an early stage, the more effective it was in slowing down or reversing the growth rate of deaths. Figure 2 shows that countries like the UK and the US, who were late in their response, register only a probability of 0.3% (or lower) of ensuring an insignificant growth rate of deaths as the outbreak evolved. This explains why these countries are still registering more deaths compared to others. Sweden, which adopted a far less stringent approach towards the pandemic, registers a 0% probability of slashing the growth rate of deaths.

In contrast, by acting swiftly and decisively, Greece registered a much higher probability of maintaining an insignificant trend in deaths compared to other European countries. At 27%, the probability of maintaining an insignificant trend in Greek deaths related to COVID-19 was notably higher than the corresponding probability of 13% in Italy and 8% in Germany, for example.

Much remains unknown about the effectiveness of individual interventions, such as school closures. Overall, however, our results suggest that the number of deaths related to the pandemic can be limited by strong government measures taken as early as possible. Norway, one of the first countries in Europe to impose a lockdown on 12 March, recorded a 98% probability of achieving an insignificant trend in COVID-19 deaths according to Figure 2. Contrast that with the UK which only introduced lockdown restrictions on 23 March and consequently recorded a 0.3% probability of achieving an insignificant trend in deaths. There is obviously a tradeoff between acting as early as possible to save lives and the adverse impact early interventions can have on the economy. This is an unresolved issue that merits proper empirical research.

Other issues that need to be investigated include the actual number of deaths related to COVID-19. Ongoing research by The Financial Times suggests that global deaths linked to COVID-19 may be 60% higher than currently recorded. In addition, further Financial Times analysis suggests that the UK has recorded the highest rate of death among 19 countries that produce comparable data. The UK government’s decision to implement a ’test and trace’ approach might go some way towards dealing with additional waves of the outbreak but it is not a panacea – not least because it remains unclear when the system will become fully operable and how exactly it will work.

What is clear to us is that early and strong interventions do save lives. Therefore, the UK should not hesitate to move fast by imposing another national lockdown if outbreak signals are received by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ paper available here.

About the Authors

Theologos Dergiades is Lecturer in the Department of International & European Studies at the University of Macedonia.



Costas Milas is Professor in the Management School at the University of Liverpool.



Theodore Panagiotidis is Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Macedonia.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: by Vincent Ghilione on Unsplash.

Abolishing the NHS surcharge for health and care workers is not as generous as it sounds – a pay rise is needed

The government was recently been forced to re-think its plans to continue charging workers in health and social care for using the NHS. But how many pay the surcharge and how much would it cost to abolish it? In answering these questions, Alan Manning explains why the gesture is not as as generous as many might think; more needs to be done to address the poor pay and conditions in this sector.

Currently, most migrants from outside the EEA who are on a visa of six months or more have to pay the Immigration Health Surcharge, which starts at £400p.a. though an increase to £624 is planned for October. This includes workers in the NHS and social care on whose work we have all depended in the pandemic.

Understandably, levying this charge on these workers at this time seemed to many a lack of generosity of spirit. The government, after some delay, has eventually decided to exempt workers in NHS and social care, seemingly permanently. But how generous is this gesture depends on how many migrants in these sectors are actually paying this charge. It is hard even for the government to answer this question because many of the relevant migrant workers are not on work visas, so the Home Office would not know what work they are doing. But here are some rough estimates:

Table 1 shows the fraction of UK-born, EEA-born, and non-EEA-born migrants in the sectors of ‘Human Health Activities’ (including but quite a lot wider than the NHS) and ‘Residential Care Activities’.

These figures come from the Labour Force Survey are a bit different from some other sources.  The migrant shares are much higher in some parts of the UK, notably London. EEA migrants do not pay the surcharge (but new arrivals will do so in the future under the government’s plans). Not all non-EEA migrants do either – it is only those on visas, essentially those who do not have permanent leave to remain in the UK. Those who have become UK citizens do not have to pay.  In health, 63% of non-EEA migrants report being a UK citizen; in care it is 46%.

Even among non-EEA migrants who are not British citizens, those with settlement do not pay. It is harder to estimate this proportion but one indication is length of time in the UK. For non-EEA migrants who are not UK citizens, the distribution of time in the UK is reported as:

Half of this group have been in the UK more than ten years when other data sources suggest most migrants will have settlement (though there are always exceptions). In fact, many of those coming under the family or work route (common in these sectors) will have settlement after five years. It seems likely that no more than half of the non-EEA migrants who are not UK citizens have to pay the charge.

These estimates imply that in health, only 2.1% of workers are paying the surcharge, 12% of migrant workers in the sector. In total, this is 50,000 workers though this includes many who are not in the NHS. Assuming each worker has an average of one dependent who also have to pay the charge (a high estimate I suspect) the total amount it will cost to waive the charge in the health sector would be about £41m annually. For the care sector, the estimates imply that 3.8% of workers are paying the surcharge, 18% of migrant workers in the sector. This amounts to about 39,000 workers paying £31m in the charge.

So, the total cost is estimated to be at most £70m annually and I again suspect this is an over-estimate. A nice gesture, and important for those who currently pay the charge, but perhaps not as generous as many might think.

When Boris Johnson says the charge has raised £900m, he may be summing over many years and including everyone who pays the charge, most of whom are probably students. To exempt health and care workers would cost very much less.

There is a flip side to this coin, however. It costs little because fewer workers in these sectors than many think are paying the charge, even among migrant workers. For those that do pay it, waiving it or abolishing it is an important gesture but perhaps we need to do more to thank workers in these sectors, both migrants and the UK-born.

My suggestion would be to make a start by immediately raising the pay of care assistants. Some supermarkets have already paid bonuses to their staff and the Welsh Government has promised a one-off £500 bonus for care workers. The UK Government has spent plenty of money on other things. But it should be a permanent rise in salary, not just a one-off bonus. That may necessitate resolving the problems of financing the sector, but everyone knows this needs to be done. The poor pay and conditions in this sector were a national scandal before the pandemic and the primary cause of the high level of vacancies. Raising the pay of care assistants would not just be an appropriate gesture of thanks for the present but a good investment for the future.


About Author

Alan Manning is Professor of Economics at the LSE and an Associate at LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: by Stephanie Martin on Unsplash.

Ronan Cormacain: Instinct or rules: making moral decisions in the Cummings scandal.

How should individuals conduct themselves during a public health emergency, and more specifically how much reliance should we have on “instinct” and “rules”?  Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, has been accused of breaking the social distancing rules.  The allegations revolve around travelling from London to Durham to isolate himself and his family, as well as taking additional trips whilst in that isolation.  The specific law he is alleged to have breached is regulation 6 of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020.  Regulation 6(1) provides that “During the emergency period, no person may leave or be outside of the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.”  In the course of defending his adviser, the Prime Minister argued that “he followed the instincts of every father” in seeking to protect his family.  In response, Independent journalist Tom Peck stated that;  “There is no guidance in place anymore, none at all. Just do what Dominic Cummings did and ‘follow your instincts’ and you’ll end up in the right place”.

There are many pertinent questions which I do not address here.  Did Cummings break the law is a technical question which is best answered in the courts following a proper police investigation of all the facts, although some parts of the story as presented seem barely credible.  The question of his resignation isn’t really a legal question but a political one, which ought to take into account his role, trust in government, personal integrity and solidarity with the rest of society. There has already been a clear answer to the question on the effect of this scandal on the willingness of the public to follow the rules – although one behavioural psychologist (and member of SAGE) has unequivocally stated that this has trashed the message to the public.

Instead the purpose of this post is to investigate the nature of “instinct” as a criterion for our moral response to the pandemic, and to contrast this with the idea of a rule-based society.

Hobbes famously argued that without rules and order, without a sovereign in charge, life would be nasty, brutish and short.  He wanted a single ruler who imposed his will upon the populace, rather than a thousand separate rulers all vying for supremacy.  Even worse would be the idea that individuals should make their own independent moral choices:

the poison of seditious doctrines, whereof one is that every private man is judge of good and evil actions …From this false doctrine, men are disposed to debate with themselves and dispute the commands of the Commonwealth, and afterwards to obey or disobey them as in their private judgments they shall think fit; whereby the Commonwealth is distracted and weakened

(Leviathan at page 198)

For Locke, in his Two Treatises of Government, the idea was that people agreed to come together to form a society (a commonwealth) and to subject themselves to the rules of that commonwealth, provided that those rules had been properly arrived at and promulgated with authority.  Locke marked off some personal liberties (and private property) from encroachment from the commonwealth, but agreed that laws made by that commonwealth are binding upon everyone within it.  Whilst there may have been some ‘choice’ in the decision to originally join the commonwealth, there was no choice over whether or not to obey its properly made rules.

Kant considered who should be the arbiter of our moral choices – who gets to decide what is right and wrong? It isn’t always the case that we have complete personal autonomy over moral questions – we must sometimes subordinate our individual moral judgement to the moral judgement of the collective. His argument, according to Reiss, was  that “The principle of universality demands that our social and political relations should be governed and our public conflicts settled in a universal manner. This requires the existence of law.”  The universal matter means that we are dealt with in the same way, subject to the same restrictions.  It requires rules which are applicable to everyone. It does not allow the anarchy of individual choices on matters where there is a settled community rule.

Stephen Reicher is a professor of social psychology rather than a philosopher, but from his entirely different discipline he made exactly the same point as Kant when he said

the prime minister seemed to endorse the idea that, when the going gets tough, it is fine to rely on your own judgments – and fine to follow your individual “instincts”.  In effect, Johnson’s defence of Cummings turned an issue of communal responsibility into an issue of individual preference.

The Church of England vicar who questioned the Secretary of State for Health at the Government press conference on Tuesday 26 May made the same point when he said “if we are all being told we can use our instincts as to whether we can abide by the law, that’s an increasingly serious thing for the future.”

Developing Kant’s line of reasoning further, Jeremy Waldron in The Dignity of Legislation argued that we are not fully autonomous human beings when it comes to making moral choices, but that we should make our decisions subject to the decisions we have collectively reached in society, or as he put it “the heteronomous obligations of positive law”.  We all have the capacity for moral reasoning and decision making, but in some cases we collectively agree that it is not for individuals to make their own choices about what is right and wrong, but for us all collectively to agree on what is right and wrong, what is permissible and impermissible.

A system of laws is that heteronomous statement of what is permissible and impermissible. We have a system in place to elect MPs, who then pass laws, which are properly debated, enacted, promulgated and then enforced.  Parliament has debated and then enacted both the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.  Using the authority of the 1984 Act, the Secretary of State for Health then made the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020.  Those Regulations were then laid before, and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament within 28 days, in accordance with the procedural requirements.  These rules were specifically crafted to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, and which took into account the need to protect the public as well as the need for personal liberties.  I have previously argued that laws still apply, even during emergencies.  The very fact that these Regulations were made for these exceptional circumstances shows that we have collectively taken the decision to regulate the pandemic through law.

It is these rules which reflect what we, collectively as a society, have decided is legally permissible and impermissible.  Furthermore, part of being a member of that society is that we respect those rules, even though we may disagree individually with some aspects of them.  For example, as an individual, I may think that it is perfectly acceptable for me to smoke in a public place, but even though I think my view is reasonable, I accept that society has taken a different view by enacting a law banning smoking in a public place.  In a similar vein, even though I personally may think it ridiculous that children have to go to school aged 5, I accept that the properly formulated and democratic rule is that we all must send our children to school at that age.  The point is that even though I may disagree with a rule, I accept the validity of it having been made and validated by the rest of society – I have given away some of my personal autonomy in favour of the group’s view of what is right and wrong.

From the constitutional and rule of law perspective, it is abundantly clear that rules must guide our actions.  Lon Fuller’s first example of a legal system gone wrong is when Rex, the mythical king, dispenses with a system of laws and decides instead to make individual judgements in individual cases.  For Fuller, the idea that the Prime Minister, or his adviser are the only arbiters of what is lawful is anathema to the morality of law.  Fuller says that “The first desideratum of a system for subjecting human conduct to the governance of rules is an obvious one: there must be rules”.  Implicit in Tom Bingham’s requirement that we are all subject to law, is the pre-requisite that there is a system of laws in place which purports to regulate our conduct.

This is why the recourse to “instinct” in the Cummings defense is out of place.  As Kant pointed out, if we were all to follow our individual instincts, then there would be chaos. Or as Jo Wolff more prosaically noted “Cummings’ gift to future teachers searching for an example of a breach of the golden rule of almost every religious and philosophical tradition: ‘what if everyone did that?’”.  Even if we are not the vile tyrants and bullies envisaged by Hobbes, it is still possible for reasonable people to disagree on moral and political questions.  But a system of law means that we mesh and aggregate our moral values into one which is collectively accepted by all of society. 

Nowhere is this clearer than in a public health crisis.  If we all follow the lockdown rules, then we have a good chance of reducing infection rates.  But if we all are free to follow our instinct, to do what we personally think is right, then we have absolute chaos and the complete absence of an effective public health policy. As Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole said “We endure these things individually because we understand ourselves to be also enduring them collectively”.  Being in it together means we are all subject to the same rules. It means that we don’t do the things that we personally think would be right (visit friends, attend funerals, hug family) because we have subordinated our own personal judgement to the judgement of the collective as represented by the Government and the Regulations.  It is our instinct to visit our dying relative, but we sacrifice that instinct to our notion of the greater good, the heteronomous consensus that we stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.

Writing on the Peloponnesian war and the plague that ravaged Athens, the Greek historian Thucydides, (according to Robert Zaretsky) wrote that:

Those yet alive, shattered by the enormity of the event, “became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane.” With the eclipse of the “fear of gods or law of men,” anarchy became the rule.

In a time of crisis, we do not have the personal luxury of obeying our instincts.  Instead all of us, from the highest to the lowest, must obey the law.

Dr Ronan Cormacain, Senior Research Fellow at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and Consultant Legislative Counsel

(Suggested citation: R. Cormacain, ‘Instinct or rules: making moral decisions in the Cummings scandal’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (28th May 2020) (available at

Finding the trees in the wood: Behavioural science and the UK’s response to COVID-19

If the government’s response to the pandemic appears opaque and chaotic, that is not the fault of behavioural science, writes Adam Oliver. He emphasises the importance of distinguishing between behavioural science as a subfield of public policy and the processes by which experts advise governments.

The UK Government’s early response to the coronavirus pandemic led to a lot of criticism of behavioural science as a tool for informing policy. That criticism, insofar as it was targeted at behavioural science, was largely misplaced, but it was essentially related to a perceived delay in the government’s decision to impose a lockdown. That is, it was focussed principally on the type and timings of the interventions embedded in the government’s response.

In that behavioural scientists study systematic patterns in human behaviour in response to various stimuli, it seems not unreasonable for governments to solicit advice from them on what to do in the face of a pandemic and when to do it. This does not mean that all behavioural scientists will offer the same advice, because a single stimulus might push behaviour in more than one direction. In an untested environment – such as that experienced with the sudden onset of a major new infectious disease – balanced judgment, informed by reasoned arguments from a broad spectrum of behavioural scientists, is a logical strategy to pursue; that there is likely to be disagreement among the behaviouralists does not invalidate their arguments.

The government receives its behavioural science advice from the Independent Scientific Pandemic Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), which was resurrected from a similar collective that was charged with giving advice during the 2009/10 swine flu pandemic (which, perhaps unlike the current outbreak, caused a significant overreaction from the government). The government stated explicitly that it did not wish for the SPI-B to comment on the ‘what’ and the ‘when’; it wanted it to advise on only the ‘how’.

As an aside, the composition of the SPI-B merits some comment. In terms of its disciplinary mix, it has representatives from health psychology, social psychology, anthropology and history (with some of its members also sitting on the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – SAGE). An economist might say that this mix is suboptimal for its purposes. The relatively new subfield of behavioural public policy is highly multidisciplinary, and encompasses fields from anthropology to zoology, lexicographically speaking. But many of the most robust systematic patterns in human behaviours used in that subfield were uncovered by behavioural economists and cognitive psychologists. It may be that because health psychologists have ‘health’ and ‘psychology’ in their description of themselves, the government sees them as the ‘go-to’ behaviouralists during a pandemic. It would be churlish to deny that they ought to be one group in the mix, but the breadth of disciplines consulted should be widened.

That being said, after trawling through the reports of the SPI-B meetings, it appears that they did offer the government some sound advice. For example, for illustrative purposes a selection of the advices offered by the SPI-B up to the beginning of April included them regularly emphasising the importance that the government give clear, transparent, unambiguous reasons for its actions (or lack thereof) and clear expectations of how the policy response would develop, and that the government should promote a sense of collectivism and duty to others – that ‘we are all in this together’ – and a sense of social disapproval, without victimisation, of those who might transgress. The SPI-B also advised that the public health messages ought to be relayed to the population by people whom the public might trust (e.g. health care professional rather than politicians), and that concerns about the length of time over which people would be able and willing to sustain social distancing should not be used as an excuse not to convey the message that social distancing was/is important. In terms of easing the lockdown, with a nod to some successful interventions that have been used in the past to highlight the calorific content of food items, the SPI-B mooted the idea that a traffic light system be used to clarify which activities gradually become acceptable in a post-lockdown society.

The above are all seemingly sensible suggestions, and the government acted consistently with some of them, at least some of the time. For example, the slogan to ‘Stay at Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives’, was clear, transparent, and unambiguous, and underpinned that one’s individual behaviour ought to be directed towards the collective good – and on the whole, it worked. But the government has faced criticism for a lack of transparency also, particularly with respect to its widely perceived failure to explain its decision to delay the lockdown in the UK with sufficient clarity, when many other countries were locking down before us. And as the lockdown started to ease, even the slogans have become opaque, with that stated above replaced by ‘Stay Alert – Control the Virus – Save Lives’, which is perhaps designed to instil a collective wartime spirit, without fully acknowledging that it is difficult to stay alert against an invisible threat. But if the government’s response to the pandemic appears, to many, opaque and chaotic, that is not the fault of behavioural science.

Much of the (misplaced) criticism that has been targeted against the use of behavioural science has been directed at the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), but the BIT, I feel, has been unfairly maligned. Admittedly, there are members of BIT who have unwittingly put themselves in the firing line (and there are no less than three BIT employees on the SPI-B), but there are also BIT team members who have been working quietly, diligently, tirelessly and with a great deal of skill towards informing public policy with insights from behavioural science for many years – indeed, since the early development of behavioural public policy as a distinct subfield of public policy a decade ago. The BIT continues to undertake much useful work in relation to the issues that are relevant to the current pandemic, such as the most effective ways to present public health messages.

However, it is also important to acknowledge that there are plenty of other behavioural public policy analysts who have likewise been working on these issues who are less ‘heard’ within policy circles, and yet who might have important insights to offer on social distancing, handwashing, hoarding and the like (and even on what interventions to implement and when, and not just how to implement interventions picked by politicians). Moreover, many of these analysts are university-based scholars, and are perhaps better positioned to highlight the possible caveats, limitations, and unintended consequences of behavioural interventions than those whose livelihoods depend on ‘selling’ the approach.

Behavioural scientists study systematic patterns in human behaviour, and thus they can bring forth crucial insights and knowledge when attempting to deal with a pandemic (and indeed any other public policy challenge). And yet it is also important, when offering advice, to openly acknowledge – indeed to highlight with enthusiasm – the caveats, limitations, and unintended consequences of behavioural science and its associated policy applications. That is, after all, what makes for good social – and behavioural – science.


About the Author

Adam Oliver is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Policy at the LSE.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash.

All eyes on Germany’s ‘crisis’ presidency, expected to lead EU recovery

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has forced Germany to radically revise the priorities for its EU Council Presidency in the second half of the year. One thing is clear: the biggest EU country takes the helm in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, at a crucial time for the bloc's recovery efforts. EURACTIV Germany reports.

A modern ‘Rasputin’, or the UK’s ‘Vice-Premier’? Whichever view you take, Cummings’s role is unprecedented

In the Dominic Cummings row, developments are not only unprecedent because they concern an unelected adviser but also because they are impacting on the country’s ability to deal with the health and financial crises. This scandal is thus affecting lives and livelihoods, argues Patrick Dunleavy.

Dominic Cummings set out to be, and has certainly become, a sharply polarizing force in British politics. After his COVID-19 travel debacles, much of the country takes a fiercely hostile view of his immanent sense of privilege, including but not restricted to his many anti-Brexit opponents. For them, Cummings is a Rasputin-like figure, a sinister and shadowy influencer with a mysterious hold over a dazed and confused Boris Johnson (the Tsar in this version) and his scheming adjunct (Cummings’s first and most committed sponsor, Michael Gove).

Like Rasputin, Cummings picks gratuitous fights with all around him, insults every established elite, briefs relentlessly against his enemies, is unworried at being pervasively loathed, and is completely convinced of his untouchability because of his hold over the PM. In a developed form, some versions of this view take Cummings as an embodiment of many malignant dark forces on the right, pushing for an unrestrained populist assault on any constitutional element force constraining No.10’s privatizing freedom of action.

Almost as extreme in a different way, however, is the view amongst some Conservatives, all Johnson-regime loyalists, and the far-right neo-liberal think tanks and pressure groups, that Cummings must somehow be defended at all costs because of his critical importance for the current government. In this perspective, his role is akin to that of Vice-Premier, providing a Dick Cheney-like Brexiteer and free marketerr spine for an otherwise out-of-his-depth PM. The 25 May press conference in the 10 Downing Street Rose Garden, with Cummings scripting and delivering his own defence, gave enormous substance to this VP role, affording him a prominence, prestige, and official backing never before given to any cabinet minister in trouble of this kind. There is no UK constitutional role for ‘the PM’s chief aide’, nor are there any established political mechanisms for holding such a ‘Vice-Premier’ to account.

The fact that Cummings evinced absolutely no regret and gave no apologies for his overtly lockdown-breaking behaviour has already occasioned a lot of comment. But in addition, he deliberately garlanded his account of his actions with many details that signalled ‘unreliable narrator’ as clearly as any postmodernist novel – such as testing his potentially problematic eyesight by driving 60 miles to a beauty spot; and portraying his initial midnight dash to Durham as the actions of a man alone, without resources, friendless in London, and on his last possible throw to save his family.

How ministerial resignations are different

Compare all this with the accepted playbook of ministerial resignations charted by Keith Dowding and his co-authors in Accounting for Ministers. Using detailed statistical analysis and a comprehensive survey of cases, they showed that a minister who got into trouble was normally left to fight their corner alone at first, with the PM and 10 Downing Street referring critics to the minister’s explanation of their behaviour, while conspicuously omitting to pledge anything like full support or confidence in them. After a few days, media attention would either subside because the story had no legs, or be kicked into the short grass of a Cabinet Secretary inquiry, or the minister would respond to support in their party crumbling away – penning protestations of loyalty to the PM in their letter of resignation, reaffirming their innocence but leaving so that their conduct should not displace the story of the government’s successes further from public view.

Dowding et al demonstrated that such ‘grasping the revolver’ moments tended to coincide spookily with polling evidence that the minister’s alleged misdeeds were imperiling public support for the PM or the government, following which No 10 statements would communicate a certain impersonal coolness and detachment, until the minister took the hint to go. Similarly, where an investigation had been triggered and misconduct allegations even partially confirmed, the minister got no second chance to state their case – merely the intimation that it is better to resign first than be sacked. In a jostling cabinet of 23, with many more junior ministers knocking on the door, plenty of rivals are usually prepared to help No 10 brief against a black sheep minister who resists pressure to go. And replacing the culprit once gone rarely causes any lasting inconvenience to a Prime Minister.

Yet now, apparently, Cummings is sui generis. He has no rivals or possible replacements as the Svengali of Downing Street. Instead many compliant hapless senior ministers obediently rushed to tweet whatever they are told to do at the behest of the PM’s chief aide, even when ignorant of much about the situation. This is an Armando Iannucci playbook straight out of his ‘The Thick of It’, which increasingly reads as the go-to manual for anyone wanting to understand the Johnson-Cummings regime. In the process, most of the cabinet seem to have succeeded only in publicly identifying themselves as ‘meat in the room’ – a phrase made famous in another Iannucci classic, describing people whose role was just to pad out the table at big meetings and repeat the regime line in public.

Sometimes ministers do survive potential resignation scandals. When Culture Secretary in 2012, Jeremy Hunt was in charge of deciding whether to allow the News Corporation takeover of BSkyB, which Murdoch was desperate to do at the time. During this period, Adam Smith, an advisor in Hunt’s office, sent hundreds of emails to NewsCorp’s media liaison section, apparently a flagrant breach of Hunt’s quasi-judicial role in this decision. An inquiry later whitewashed Hunt, who apparently knew nothing of his aide’s activities. Against the odds, Hunt survived to become a long-lasting Health Secretary and eventual challenger to Johnson for the Tory leadership in 2019 – keeping his copybook conspicuously clean of further blots along the way.

The looming context

What makes the Cummings case so different too, is the unprecedented salience of his controversial behaviours. The UK has suffered a huge coronavirus disruption for weeks, and lost more than 60,000 people to the virus. The explanation of what has gone so catastrophically wrong so quickly, and which will affect the economy and public finances for at least a decade ahead, is still emerging. But it seems safe to say an ongoing omni-crisis has been created at many levels:

  • An initial and wholly familiar UK core executive policy disaster where the Johnson-Cummings regime from January to late March minimized the coming threat and gratuitously delayed taking action, partly while believing in Cummings’s alleged dalliance with ‘herd immunity’ solutions.
  • A public service delivery disaster that was unplanned and unintended. An austerity-vulnerable and hopelessly under-equipped NHS was ‘protected’ only by repelling many cases from hospitals, and leaving the social care sector to completely fend for itself in caring for the very elderly.
  • Structural failures built into the public services by a decade of Cameron-Clegg-May austerity, the failure to undertake any other remedial policy changes during the Brexit era (2016-19), and the withering away of local government and public health capabilities.
  • A second core executive policy fiasco in the ludicrous over-centralization of coronavirus crisis management efforts in No 10, with Cummings’s cronies and associates brought in from the private sector, which has created huge problems. The established bureaucracies in the civil service have produced substantial and reasonably well-working initiatives, like the Treasury/HMRC’s furlough scheme and aid to the self-employed, and DWP’s massive expansion of job-seeker benefits. All three massive policy initiatives were successfully implemented at speed. In acute contrast, Cummings and his Downing Street ‘irregulars’, feuding non-stop with the shattered post-Lansley/post-Hunt Department of Health, have produced only a series of feeble, late, non-working initiatives – the Dyson ventilators, the defective PPE flown in from Turkey, the ‘NHS volunteers’ recruited and left untasked in their tens of thousands, the contact-tracing app that does not work. Many No 10 efforts seem to have gone solely into dreaming up bogus, one-day ‘good news’ stories for limping ministerial briefings – a kind of ‘crisis management by think tank’ strategy.
  • A third level of core executive policy fiasco has now been added by the decision to bulldoze past the Cummings scandal, whatever the cost to public trust, and the wider mismanagement of easing lockdown messages by a health-impaired Johnson.

Normally, the costs of blatant misconduct within the core executive are exclusively political and occasionally administrative: a blow to government popularity, a short downward blip in a Whitehall department’s performance, or another dent in public trust in government. The possible costs of the Cummings scandal, and of Johnson’s decision to brazen his way through it, are again historically unique – for they could yet be counted in terms of more body bags and an even more shattered economy in the weeks ahead, and in the autumn and winter to come.


About the Author

Patrick Dunleavy is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the LSE, and co-author of The UK’s Changing Democracy (LSE Press, 2018) – free to download here. His next book is Maximizing the Impacts of Academic Research (co-authored), forthcoming from Macmillan in October 2020. He tweets at @PJDunleavy and @Write4Research.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Minute’s Silence Held For Key Workers Who Have Died During Coronavirus Pandemic by Number 10 on Flickr (BY-NC-ND).

A reformer from a bygone era: What the Cummings saga tells us about British governance

Patrick Diamond writes that the Cummings coronavirus row has wider implications for the machinery of British government. These revolve around the status of political advisers and the future of Cummings’s state reform visions.

As the row over Dominic Cummings’s breach of lockdown rules escalates, threatening to engulf the entire Johnson Administration, it is worth reflecting on the implications of the dispute for the future of British governance more generally. The big questions that arise go beyond the details of Mr Cummings’s breach and the fundamental principles of propriety, truth, and integrity in high office. They concern how the machinery of government is likely to develop in the future.

The first implication is what this case tells us about the status of political advisers in British politics. The Code of Conduct for Special Advisers published by the Cabinet Office is clear that the purpose of political advisers is ‘to add a political dimension to the advice and assistance available to Ministers’. According to the official constitutional rationale, special advisers protect the neutrality of civil servants, undertaking tasks of a political nature which – if performed by officials – would undermine their ability to serve future governments of a different political complexion. Civil servants claim to welcome the presence of special advisers who provide knowledge and insight on issues of future policy, while offering steers on the political views of Ministers. The benign interpretation is that the British system of government cultivates a mutually beneficial partnership, a ‘governing marriage’ between Ministers, officials, and political appointees.

Certainly, there have been controversial special advisers before, many of whom were forced to resign because they breached the unwritten rule that political aides must never become the media story – the most pertinent recent examples being Theresa May’s notorious aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. Yet Timothy and Hill were, by and large, backroom operators who were fired ultimately because their boss was politically weakened in the aftermath of the 2017 general election debacle. Without question, it is an important moment in the development of the British political system that a special adviser such as Dominic Cummings is able to hold their own impromptu press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street, taking questions from journalists while holding court in front of the world’s media.

Indeed, paragraph 14 of the Special Advisers Code states that, ‘Special advisers must not take public part in political controversy, through any form of statement whether in speeches or letters to the press, or in books, social media, articles or leaflets. They must observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks, and would not normally speak in public for their Minister or the Department’. The function of advisers is, ‘to represent the views of their Minister to the media’, rather than to justify their own actions or personal behaviour. In this extraordinary situation, Ministers are being sent onto the airwaves to defend the position of a political adviser. This is a remarkable moment.

The implications of Cummings’s media appearance will be far-reaching. We have reached a critical juncture, constitutionally a point of no return. There is likely to be growing pressure for special advisers to give testimony where they are involved in public controversies, notably to parliamentary select committees. Cummings’s actions will bolster the arguments of those who insist special advisers have a malign impact on the conduct of government, reducing civil servants to the status of ‘passive functionaries’ and politicising public administration. Cummings is a well-known critic of the British civil service. He regards the permanent bureaucracy as slow-moving, unimaginative, cumbersome, detached from seismic shifts in the world of technology and ideas. Cummings’s explicit goal is to ‘drain the swamp’ of the Whitehall bureaucracy, moving towards a ‘them and us’ model where civil servants no longer offer advice, but merely do what Ministers tell them. Civil servants become the implementors of policy rather than the initiators of policy; delivery agents, not ministerial advisers with the capacity to ‘speak truth to power’.

The second implication of the dispute is what the row tells us about the status of the institutional innovator and disrupter in the system of government. It may well be that Cummings’s mission to rewire the British state while radically recasting the Whitehall machinery is dead in the water. His ideas about how to reorganise the state machine might be deemed necessary for an age of disruption, but he will find formidable forces of conservatism in the government machine ranged against him, just at the moment his political capital is depleted badly. One difficulty is that Cummings is attempting to orchestrate change from the centre in 10 Downing Street. In the British system of government, it is departments that usually reign supreme. Departments are the centres of decision-making power, autonomous territories where policy is formulated, budgets are allocated, and implementation is co-ordinated. Even nominally powerful prime ministers with landslide parliamentary majorities such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair discovered that departments have the capacity to thwart the will of the centre.

Another problem is that resistance to fundamental change in the government machine comes not only from civil servants, but Ministers themselves. Away from the highly politicised centre of power in Number 10, Ministers by and large work closely with their officials who they regard as problem-solvers, Machiavellian fixers, loyal courtiers, and expert bureaucrats who know about how to drive through change, navigating the byzantine rituals of Whitehall. The tension is even more acute in a Conservative government, where traditionalists favour the preservation of existing institutions, upholding the long-standing Northcote-Trevelyan principles of impartiality and merit-based appointment. At the beginning of 2020 when Cummings went public with his plan to recruit dozens of ‘weirdo’ data scientists into government supplanting ostensibly ineffectual civil servants, a Cabinet Minister told The Times: ‘One of the big problems with [Cummings’s] pull the pin out of the grenade, drop it in the bunker, and see what happens approach is that it is so destabilising…we take several steps backwards before we’ve even started’.

In the world after the pandemic, it is very probable that the debate about state reform in Britain will take a quite different direction to that envisaged by the Cummings’s prospectus. The state is back as an economic actor, and as such, thirty years of antipathy to government as a force for good may be waning. It is public servants who have ensured that furlough wages and benefits are paid on time, while businesses are protected. Discussion will centre on how to restore the capacity of government to tackle major challenges from strategic risks such as future pandemics and climate change, to the long-term implications of the crisis, notably tackling public health inequalities while repurposing institutions. Unquestionably, the overly centralised nature of the British state will come under renewed scrutiny. In this climate, Cummings may well appear a reformer from a bygone era.


About the Author

Patrick Diamond is Associate Professor of Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London, and a former Government Special Adviser.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: by Luca Campioni on Unsplash.

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