June 17. The clue is in the qualifier. The heads of civil service departments in the UK are called ‘Permanent Secretaries.’ They are in charge of bodies of public employees whose tenure is independent of changes in the political complexion of government.
Two of the most senior members of this cadre, Tom Scholar, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, and Alex Chisholm, Permanent Secretary at the all-powerful Cabinet Office and formerly at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, were interviewed on Monday of this week by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on their preparations for a pandemic.
Dominic Cummings said earlier this year that he wanted to recruit to the civil service “some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole.” Scholar, the son of a knighted civil servant, fought his way out of the hell hole that was Dulwich College public school and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, Chisholm struggled up from Downside public school and a degree (in history) from Merton College, Oxford. They are in charge of sections of a civil service that has so far resisted attempts to politicise its membership.
The question is, what are the demonstrable gains from this oasis of institutional stability? Over the last three years, there has been an obvious need for a locus of stable management of the affairs of a troubled state. There have been three Chancellors of the Exchequer since 2016, one of whom, Philip Hammond, ended up having the whip withdrawn and retiring from Parliament. The Department for Business has also had three heads, and the Cabinet Office, the central unit for co-ordinating the government machine, no less than five in four years.
What the PAC wanted to know, was whether the Permanent Secretaries had formed plans for the management of the economy during a pandemic, following the Cygnus simulation exercise in October 2016, which had modelled a scenario in which 50% of the population was infected by a flu-like virus.
It had cause to suppose that the civil service had a particular responsibility for this kind of planning. The politicians were living day-to-day through the prolonged crisis set in motion by the Brexit referendum in June 2016. Ideological commitment overwhelmed long-term thinking. Ministers ate, drank and dreamed the pursuit of negotiating deadlines. Cohorts of civil servants were taken from their normal duties to work with Brussels, but compared to their political masters, there remained wide areas of the government machine with the time and space to engage with medium and long-term futures.
The answer to the Committee’s question was that there had been no planning for the economic impact of a pandemic. The measures taken once the real thing arrived were made up as the crisis deepened. The chair of the PAC pronounced herself “quite dumbstruck” by this omission. “Could you do us a follow-up note on the lack of economic planning for the pandemic?” she said. Chisholm confirmed that he would.
Countries which have done best in this crisis have been characterised not by their particular political complexion, but rather by their capacity to have in place and then fine-tune long-term plans for crisis management. When the history of the UK’s lamentable performance is written, it will not be just the politicians who are in the firing line.