Even in the absence of Cummings, the Johnson Administration will continue its mission of ‘draining the swamp’ in Whitehall

LSE British Politics and Policy

November 20th, 2020

Despite being closely associated with Dominic Cummings’s visions, the effort to de-privilege the civil service did not begin with him, but with the arrival of the Cameron Government in 2010, writes Patrick Diamond. The chasm between Ministers and civil servants is a long-term structural trend, exacerbated by alterations in the ideological nature of British Conservatism, and will continue to grow even without Cummings.

Dominic Cummings’ dramatic departure from 10 Downing Street inevitably stirred great excitement among political pundits and commentators in the Westminster village. It raised fundamental questions about the future character of the Johnson Administration. Among the most significant was whether Cummings’s historic project to fundamentally transform the British state was now over. There was speculation that shorn of its permanent campaign ethos, the Conservative Government would revert to a more measured governing style, striving to work co-operatively with the civil service, respecting constitutional convention, upholding democratic norms, while practising statecraft by consent. Many officials will desperately hope that Cummings’s demise amounts to the end of the ‘hard rain’ that has fallen on Whitehall since the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Nevertheless, civil servants would be mistaken to assume that Conservative Ministers are about to revert to a more consensual governing approach where officials are free once again to ‘speak truth to power’. The growing chasm between Ministers and civil servants is a long-term structural trend, exacerbated by alterations in the ideological nature of British Conservatism. The influential ideas of the New Right in Britain and the United States attack bureaucrats as self-interested and incompetent, the very antithesis of the public good. Cummings’s rhetoric has inflamed tensions and certainly not helped matters. Yet he alone is not the driver of the growing division in the ‘governing marriage’ that characterised Whitehall since Northcote-Trevelyan and the Haldane report of 1918.

As Rodney Lowe and Hugh Pemberton outline in their masterful second volume of the Official History of the British Civil Service, six forces have propelled Ministers and officials towards divorce, while fragmenting and destabilising the system of government in the UK.

The first is the growing emphasis in the British state on prioritising a narrow measure of financial efficiency. The focus on cost reduction since the efficiency review led by Derek Rayner in the early 1980s led to a sharp fall in civil service numbers. Over the last decade, numbers have fallen further (although there has been a slight uptick since Brexit). Not surprisingly, the financial squeeze has left the civil service demoralised and weakened the fabric of the state.

The second is the related trend towards outsourcing. Service delivery has come to rely less on the public sector than on a multiplicity of private and non-governmental providers. Civil servants are the managers of contracts, commissioners increasingly detached from frontline implementation. More than ever, capital investment has depended on Public Private Partnerships and the Private Finance Initiative.

The third development concerns governance fragmentation. Compelled to operate within the ministerial fiefdoms of Whitehall’s departmental system, officials have struggled to work across boundaries to shape effective policies. Among the most far-reaching reforms was the creation of ‘Next Steps’ agencies in the late 1980s. Over time, three quarters of the civil service have been transferred to ‘arms-length’ agencies, entrenching the artificial separation between policy determination and operational delivery, making ‘joining-up’ all but impossible.

The fourth trend is centralisation. Policy-making influence in Whitehall has become increasingly concentrated. The growing power of the centre in Number 10 has encouraged group-think and hyper-innovation, marginalising the civil service. Yet paradoxically, the centre has become more enfeebled and brittle, lacking the necessary capabilities for effective decision-making, detached from the realities of ‘street-level’ service delivery.

The fifth accompanying shift is the politicisation of Whitehall. Among the most significant changes is the doctrine of ministerial supremacy. Rather than formulating policy through constructive collaboration between officials and Ministers, the ideas of politicians, often developed in the opposition years, have come to dominate the policy-making process. Ministers, after all, have a direct mandate and their views are held to encompass ‘the will of the people’. Yet side-lining civil servants has created a deliberation deficit which exposes Ministers to the growing threat of policy fiascos and blunders.

The final long-term change has been the ideology of the limited state. The position of the civil service was further undermined by the ethos of small government that prevailed after 1979. The role of the state was now to uphold private property rights and the basic liberties of the individual. Any constructive role for government in developing the industrial base, spurring economic growth and improving productivity was eschewed. This position amounted to a further attack on the efficacy of the public bureaucracy.

Even in the absence of Cummings, the Johnson Administration will continue its mission of ‘draining the swamp’ in Whitehall. There is a persistent belief that government, central or local, is inherently inefficient, even corrupt – underlined by the response to the pandemic. Ministers favour a market state where a politicised centre determines policies, while implementation is carried out by a host of non-state, usually private sector, providers. There will still be a NASA-style mission control centre, accompanied by White House-style press briefings. Civil servants will be further marginalised by trouble-shooting management consultants. The signature reform of the current administration in response to the governance fiasco of COVID-19 is to bring Public Health England, an operationally autonomous agency, under the direct political control of Ministers. For all the rhetoric about levelling-up the UK, there will be no renaissance in the status and legitimacy of the public sector.

Indeed, the effort to de-privilege the civil service did not begin with Cummings, but the arrival of the Cameron Government in 2010. Francis Maude as Cabinet Office Minister was explicitly charged with shaking up the permanent bureaucracy. The technocratic language of managerialism that characterised statements such as the Civil Service Reform Plan (2012) disguised a basic intention to end the civil service monopoly over policy advice. Maude sought to create a more ‘contestable’ policy-making machinery shaped by think-tanks, consultancies and policy entrepreneurs from outside the Whitehall system. Officials were ever more confined to the margins of decision-making.

These developments speak to a continuing ideological shift in state and society. Remarkably, government is still viewed as the obstacle rather than the solution to the great policy problems of the age.


About the Author

Patrick Diamond is the author of The End of Whitehall (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and Associate Professor of Public Policy, Queen Mary.

LSE Blogs

Ultradroite : identitarisme et terrorisme brun dessus brun dessous

La menace représentée par les groupes identitaires en France est prise très au sérieux par les forces de sécurité, qui redoutent autant les actions violentes concertées, dont plusieurs ont été déjouées dernièrement, que le passage à l’acte de loups solitaires.


Ils rêvent d’un Grand Soir de couleur brune. Ou d’une «Nouvelle Aurore», d’après le nom d’un groupuscule néonazi repéré dans les environs de Marseille. Surtout, ils fourbissent leurs armes pour déclencher une guerre civile raciale, et détruire un modèle républicain jugé incapable de défendre ses citoyens – comprendre les «Français blancs». Fabien Badaroux, l’homme de 33 ans qui a été abattu par la police le 29 octobre à Avignon, après avoir menacé un automobiliste maghrébin avec un pistolet (non chargé), s’était revendiqué de la mouvance identitaire. Il faisait l’objet d’un suivi psychiatrique. Alors qu’il avait longtemps adhéré au Parti communiste, il portait ce jour-là un anorak bleu arborant le logo «Defend Europe», un slogan de Génération identitaire (GI), le courant d’extrême droite radicale le plus visible en France. De plus, de la documentation néonazie et célébrant l’idéologie des identitaires a été retrouvée à son domicile. Une porte-parole de GI avait aussitôt déclaré : «Cet homme n’a jamais milité chez nous, personne le connaît.» Pour autant, l’attaque d’Avignon semblait être une réplique à l’attentat islamiste perpétré deux heures plus tôt par un Tunisien de 21 ans, qui avait assassiné trois fidèles catholiques de la basilique Notre-Dame, à Nice.
Dans une société traumatisée par les tueries commises depuis 2015 par des jihadistes aguerris ou des individus radicalisés, une autre menace, en miroir, inquiète les services de sécurité : des actions terroristes contre une mosquée, des musulmans, ou leurs prétendus «complices», fomentées par des partisans de l’ultradroite. «En dehors du terrorisme islamiste, qui reste la menace principale, les services de police et de gendarmerie craignent de voir se constituer des groupes prônant le suprémacisme blanc, ou le survivalisme, dans leur composante violente, explique à Libé Laurent Nuñez, le coordonnateur national du renseignement et de la lutte contre le terrorisme. Ces groupes cherchent à s’organiser, à s’armer, pour être capables de combattre une prétendue domination de l’islam sur le pays. Depuis 2017, cinq projets d’attaques émanant de cette mouvance ont été déjoués.»


Parmi ces cinq complots, deux étaient en phase avancée. Le 3 novembre, à l’aube, les policiers de la Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure (DGSI) ont interpellé chez elle Delphine T., aide-soignante à la retraite, ainsi que l’a révélé le Point. Cette sexagénaire, domiciliée à Périgueux (Dordogne), pourrait être l’instigatrice d’un plan d’attaque contre Emmanuel Macron, contrecarré en novembre 2018 et échafaudé par les «Barjols», un groupe d’adeptes du survivalisme. Six hommes, qui évoquaient la possibilité d’assassiner le Président lors des commémorations du centenaire de la fin de la Première Guerre mondiale, ont déjà été arrêtés. L’un d’eux, Jean-Pierre B., retraité isérois de 63 ans, cherchait à se procurer un couteau en céramique, indétectable par les portiques de sécurité. Il avait été intercepté alors qu’il avait rallié la Moselle en voiture, en compagnie d’un complice.

Quelques mois auparavant, en juin 2018, un autre groupe d’ultradroite, l’Action des forces opérationnelles (AFO), était démantelé. Comme les Barjols, les membres d’AFO ne font aucune référence au nazisme ou au fascisme. Pour ces adeptes du «grand remplacement» – cette théorie complotiste selon laquelle les élites au pouvoir veulent substituer des populations venues d’Afrique et de l’Orient aux peuples européens -, l’ennemi est tout désigné : le «péril islamique». En réalité, ils visent tous les musulmans, envisageant des attaques contre des imams «radicaux», mais aussi des tirs et jets d’explosifs sur une mosquée, des agressions de femmes voilées… Jusqu’à l’empoisonnement des rayons d’alimentation halal dans les supermarchés de région parisienne… Pour cela, les membres de ce groupe paramilitaire clandestin s’entraînent dans une propriété dans l’Yonne. Ils cherchent à fabriquer du TATP, un explosif puissant, et veulent se procurer des fusils d’assaut. Le profil des recrues de l’AFO surprend les enquêteurs : beaucoup sont des quinquagénaires ou des retraités, des anciens policiers et ex-militaires, des chasseurs et des adeptes du tir sportif. Ces derniers tentent de faire des émules au sein de deux régiments parachutistes stationnés dans le Sud-Ouest. «Ces individus se considèrent comme la dernière partie saine de la société française. Psychologiquement, ils fonctionnent selon le schéma “militaire un jour, militaire toujours” ou “flic un jour, flic toujours”, analyse le politologue Jean-Yves Camus, spécialiste de l’extrême droite. Pour pallier l’insuffisance, la compromission et la lâcheté supposée des autorités face à la menace, ils sont prêts à reprendre les armes…»
A ce jour, 15 membres de l’AFO sont mis en examen pour «association de malfaiteurs terroristes» et sont en attente d’un jugement. Mais, selon nos informations, l’organigramme de l’organisation, récupéré par les enquêteurs de la DGSI, recensait quelque 110 membres, répartis en 10 réseaux régionaux et couvrant une soixantaine de départements. Certains d’entre eux avaient quitté le groupe avant les interpellations. Par prudence ? Par impatience de passer à l’action ? Parmi eux, un sous-officier de gendarmerie, organisateur, à ses heures perdues, de stages de survivalisme et de self-défense…

Mais alors, l’ultradroite violente, combien de divisions ? Entre 1 000 et 1 500 individus, susceptibles de se mobiliser et de mener une action violente, sont identifiés par les services spécialisés – DGSI et renseignement territorial, essentiellement. Parmi eux, «quelques centaines», détenant légalement une ou plusieurs armes à feu, sont fichés S (pour «Sécurité de l’Etat») et font l’objet d’un suivi renforcé. A ce noyau dur, il faut ajouter un millier de «sympathisants», repérés dans des manifestations ou sur les réseaux sociaux.
Surtout, la menace augmente et se renouvelle. Trois mouvements dissous en Conseil des ministres en avril 2019 (Bastion social, ainsi que Blood and Honor et Charlemagne Hammerskins, deux groupuscules skinheads néonazis) se sont reformés à l’échelon local, sous d’autres appellations, ou poursuivent plus sporadiquement leurs activités. Selon Mediapart, une procédure pour «reconstitution de groupe dissous» vise le Bastion social, ouvrant la voie à de possibles sanctions pénales. D’autres groupes émergent. Ainsi, «les Braves – Vivre européen», drainant plusieurs centaines d’adeptes, prônent le suprémacisme blanc. Son leader, Daniel Conversano, a édité l’an dernier une œuvre posthume de Guillaume Faye, théoricien de l’extrême droite radicale. Son titre : Guerre civile raciale. En attendant, comme d’autres groupuscules, «les Braves» s’entraînent collectivement aux sports de combat, organisent des stages d’été «enracinés»… Au cours d’émissions diffusées sur Internet, certains membres recommandent de s’armer, officiellement pour défendre leur domicile. «J’ai profité du permis de chasse gratuit [pour avoir le droit d’avoir une arme, ndlr]», dit l’un d’eux, goguenard. «Tu peux fabriquer tes cartouches toi-même», glisse un autre.


Les services de renseignement relèvent également une tendance à vouloir créer des lieux collectifs, ou des communautés familiales ou d’amis, conçus comme des «paradis blancs» avec une volonté d’autodéfense. «On note l’éclosion de petits groupes plus secrets, évoluant dans le suprémacisme, le survivalisme, avec des individus baignés dans la théorie du complot, le grand remplacement, relève un haut responsable du renseignement. Dans ces groupes, les appels à la haine et à la violence sont permanents et totalement décomplexés. Toute la difficulté est de déceler parmi eux celui qui est susceptible de franchir la limite.» «De plus en plus, le passage à l’acte violent sera le fait d’individus en rupture avec un groupe, souligne de son côté Jean-Yves Camus. Des gens qui trouvent que cela ne va pas assez vite, pas assez loin, et qui décident d’agir seuls. Un individu peut devenir plus dangereux que le groupe.»

La hantise des services de sécurité reste le cas d’Anders Breivik, terroriste norvégien d’extrême droite auteur d’une tuerie de masse (77 morts, 151 blessés) en 2011. Ou celui de Brenton Tarrant, responsable de 51 morts dans l’attaque de deux mosquées à Christchurch (Nouvelle-Zélande), le 15 mars 2019, aujourd’hui idolâtré sur les forums et réseaux de la mouvance. «A l’image de ce qui s’est passé avec les derniers attentats islamistes, on peut envisager, côté ultradroite, le scénario d’un homme seul, fragile psychologiquement, inconnu des services, qui, après s’être procuré une arme, décide de frapper, sans en avoir parlé à personne», relève Nuñez. Une menace quasi impalpable, nourrie de propagande haineuse, de fake news, et de failles identitaires.

Libération Jeudi le 19 novembre

A Montpellier, les leçons de laïcité du nouveau maire.


Elu en juin, le socialiste Michaël Delafosse continue son travail de professeur d’histoire-géographie et enseigne trois heures par semaine. «Libération» est allé assister à un cours. Au programme : les Lumières, la tolérance, et le blasphème.

Les grandes tragédies accouchent de toutes sortes de douleurs. Chacun les évalue, les assimile en regard de sa propre expérience. L’assassinat de Samuel Paty a bousculé les consciences. La figure d’un professeur de collège convoque la mémoire du plus grand nombre. Les souvenirs des cours d’école refont surface. Comme après chaque attaque terroriste, certains politiques mènent leurs vendettas personnelles. Après le drame de Conflans-Sainte-Honorine (Yvelines), la gauche s’est de nouveau interrogée sur son rapport à l’islam. Un après-midi, on a composé le numéro du nouveau maire socialiste de Montpellier. Et la discussion a vite bifurqué hors du terrain politique.

Michaël Delafosse, 43 ans, est également professeur d’histoire-géographie dans un collège de sa ville. «Je suis maire mais j’ai gardé une classe de quatrième parce que je ne voulais pas arrêter l’enseignement. C’est important pour moi. Forcément, lorsqu’un professeur de ma génération qui enseigne la même matière et le même programme que moi à des gamins d’un âge équivalent est tué, ça résonne d’une autre manière», lâche-t-il, froidement. L’édile de la cité héraultaise répète à plusieurs reprises : «Ça aurait pu être moi.» La conversation s’achève avec une promesse ; celle d’assister à l’un de ses cours.

Chevalier de La Barre

Vendredi 13 novembre : Michaël Delafosse accompagné de son «chat» (sa femme) dépose ses «loulous» (ses enfants) à l’école. Une habitude familiale. Le maire et la directrice d’hôpital s’organisent pour que la famille passe du temps ensemble. Chaque moment compte. Le professeur – qui enseigne trois heures par semaine – ne cesse de s’arrêter dans la longue montée qui sépare l’école de ses enfants de son collège. L’édile raconte ses plans pour la ville et bavarde avec les passants. Un cycliste, un parent d’élève ou un commerçant qui tire la langue à cause de ce foutu virus. Un sens du contact qui fait dire à ses opposants et ses amis que le maire a un côté «Chirac».

Les portes du collège «populaire» Fontcarrade s’ouvrent : les élèves masqués grimpent les escaliers dans le brouhaha. On s’installe au fond de la classe. Le cours commence. Michaël Delafosse enseigne depuis une vingtaine d’années. Le longiligne affiche le même look depuis ses débuts : costume et cravate. Une forme de «respect» pour la profession, justifie-t-il. Les élèves sont calmes, posés, tandis que l’enseignant ne cesse d’arpenter la pièce. Il ne donne aucun répit : «Merci de sortir le devoir que vous aviez à faire à la maison. Et je passe entre les rangs pour regarder.» Une biographie de Voltaire, au programme. Il circule entre les tables, lit au-dessus des épaules et parfois livre à voix haute une citation du philosophe. Puis, à la fin de sa tournée, il prend une craie et écrit le nom des penseurs majeurs des Lumières.

Les élèves ne découvrent pas leur existence. Montesquieu ? Une fille au premier rang dit : «C’est celui de la séparation des pouvoirs.» Rousseau ? Un garçon qui garde son manteau interroge : «Ce n’est pas celui qui parlait de l’école et de l’éducation ?» Voltaire ? Le mot «respect» revient souvent. Le socialiste préfère «tolérance». Michaël Delafosse invite un cas concret dans son cours : le 28 février 1766, le chevalier de La Barre, 19 ans, est condamné par le présidial d’Abbeville, pour «impiété, blasphèmes, sacrilèges exécrables et abominables», à avoir la langue tranchée, à être décapité et brûlé. Les élèves écoutent. Posent des questions sur le mot «torture». Le professeur n’esquive pas : il conte les «supplices subis» par le jeune chevalier de La Barre.

Polémique politicienne

La veille, attablé à l’heure du dîner en notre compagnie, il est revenu sur la mort de Samuel Paty : «C’était un vendredi, une élue de la mairie m’a envoyé la photo de la tête de mon collègue. Sur le coup je n’ai rien compris.» Ce soir-là, la colère gronde face à la barbarie alentour, puis l’émotion et la douleur, surtout. Pas question de participer à un hommage ou d’allumer des bougies, réagit-il au début. Les jours passent. Le courroux cède le terrain à l’envie de se rassembler. Place de l’Opéra de Montpellier, des collégiens, lycéens et étudiants ont lu l’article 11 de la Constitution avec l’artiste Grand Corps Malade.

Michaël Delafosse s’est toujours imaginé professeur d’histoire-géographie. Il ne sait pas trop pourquoi. C’est comme ça. Le socialiste – qui est engagé depuis la fac – a débuté en Seine-Saint-Denis. Il a fait des remplacements à Villemomble, Aulnay-sous-Bois et au Blanc-Mesnil. Les sentiments s’entremêlent. Il garde en tête les difficultés, la violence, les rires et les succès. Les défaites font également partie du jeu. «Comme les médecins ou les pompiers, on ne peut pas toujours gagner. De temps à autre, on voit un gamin sur le fil et il finit par tomber. Ce n’est jamais facile à vivre, parfois, on pleure ou on dort mal la nuit… mais c’est comme ça, c’est notre métier», conclut-il fataliste.

On tente de toucher un nerf avec une question sur la difficulté d’enseigner certaines matières dans les établissements des quartiers populaires. Il grimpe dans les tours. Michaël Delafosse lâche des «ignares» et «ignorants» au sujet des commentateurs sur les plateaux télé. Le professeur d’histoire-géographie livre quelques anecdotes, comme lorsqu’un jeune à Aulnay-sous-Bois lui dit que le 11-Septembre, c’est de la flûte : «J’ai pris le temps de lui expliquer après le cours, tranquillement, avec des faits, des images.» Il s’irrite encore : «Comment peut-on dire que nous ne pouvons pas enseigner la Shoah ? C’est faux. Evidemment, il y a eu des collègues en difficulté mais dans la très grande majorité des cas, les professeurs parlent de tous les sujets et il y a un dialogue nourri avec les élèves.»

A propos de dialogue, quelques voix s’élèvent à l’extérieur du collège. Une partie de l’opposition municipale reproche au nouveau maire son manque d’échanges. Samedi matin : la gauche tendance insoumise se pointe devant la gare Montpellier-Saint-Roch. La conseillère municipale Alenka Doulain et le militant Rhany Slimane décrivent Michaël Delafosse comme un politicard chevronné qui maîtrise principalement le sens de la communication. Selon eux, il marcherait sur les brisées de l’ancien bourgmestre (1977-2004) de la ville, décédé il y a dix ans. «Georges Frêche a imaginé Montpellier et depuis personne ne propose autre chose, Delafosse n’invente rien. Il veut tout faire comme lui», pourfend Rhany Slimane. Les deux trentenaires rappellent avec un petit sourire en coin que l’ancien hiérarque continuait, lui aussi, à enseigner durant ses nombreux mandats à la mairie.

«Espoir» et «gamins formidables»

Ces derniers temps, une polémique politicienne s’est invitée dans la ville. Le maire a mis en place, comme annoncé pendant sa campagne, une charte de la laïcité que les associations doivent signer avant toute demande de subventions. Un collectif, composé de citoyens et de politiques, a vu le jour pour s’opposer à cette convention. Ils y voient un index pointé en direction des musulmans. La loi 1905 suffit, rétorquent-ils. Rhany Slimane comprend la fronde : «C’est de la communication. Le maire a profité des attentats pour en parler partout dans la presse car c’est un sujet qui va dans le sens du vent.» Alenka Doulain poursuit : «Cette charte divise et c’est malheureux. Mais attention, nous ne sommes pas dans la démagogie, Delafosse peut aussi faire de bonnes choses comme le fait de mettre en place des aides aux devoirs gratuites pour les élèves, afin que l’Etat joue pleinement son rôle dans l’éducation.»

Le maire lève les yeux en l’air face aux accusations. Il propose un cours d’histoire pour rappeler les origines de la laïcité afin de souligner la place de la gauche. «Je ne m’attaque pas à une religion contrairement à une partie de la droite et de l’extrême droite. Chacun a le droit de croire ou non, de pratiquer ou pas, tant que ça reste dans la sphère privée. Je suis pour la tolérance et notre charte respecte la loi de 1905, dit-il avant de plonger dans l’eau. A la piscine, tout le monde sait que les shorts et les caleçons sont interdits mais il y a tout de même le règlement à l’entrée. C’est ce que je fais avec la charte, elle représente le règlement.»

A l’intérieur du collège, c’est plus calme. Le cours touche bientôt à sa fin. Michaël Delafosse propose à ses élèves de lire un texte de Voltaire. Le philosophe dénonce la «barbarie» de la France après la mort du chevalier de La Barre. En bas du texte, une note : l’auteur a écrit ce texte à Genève, en Suisse. L’enseignant explique que Voltaire a dû traverser la frontière car les risques étaient nombreux à l’époque. Il demande lesquels aux élèves qui lâchent en vrac des «torture», «guillotine», «prison», «mort»… «Censure», la bonne réponse, n’arrivera jamais. Le professeur l’explique rapidement et promet de revenir dessus la prochaine fois.

Michaël Delafosse range ses affaires dans son cartable. On fait le point avec lui avant que le professeur ne revête sa panoplie de maire. Lorsqu’on le lance sur la photo de classe, il rétorque : «Je ne regarde jamais la couleur de mes élèves.» Par contre, lorsqu’il raconte ses nombreuses anecdotes, il aime citer les prénoms pour en souligner la diversité. Le professeur fait des gestes de la main pour se replonger dans son cours. Il revient sur le moindre détail. Parle souvent «d’espoir» et de «gamins formidables» qui vivent parfois dans le «dur» à l’extérieur de l’établissement.

L’heure tourne. Michaël Delafosse lâche d’un air confiant : «Les élèves comprennent la complexité de l’histoire. Vous avez vu, aujourd’hui, on a parlé de liberté d’expression, de la pression du religieux. Ils savent tous que ça approche, que bientôt nous allons parler de ce qu’on a vécu en France ces dernières années et ça se passera très bien. En prenant le temps, on fait les choses comme il faut.» Dans une époque où la nuance et le temps long ont été remplacés par l’immédiateté ravageuse, l’élu s’interroge souvent face à la montée de la violence. Il s’inquiète aussi lorsqu’il pense à la crise sociale qui grossit. Le professeur, lui, est un poil plus optimiste.

Rachid Laïreche – envoyé spécial à Montpellier, Libération

Rule of law and COVID-19: the need for clarity, certainty, transparency and coordination

Joelle Grogan highlights some points of concern as regards the UK’s response to the pandemic, and advocates areas in which both governance and policy can be tangibly improved.

The promised six-month review of the Coronavirus Act 2020 has been completed, allowing for the extension of powers under the Act, just as a new three-tier system has been introduced in England, the Welsh Assembly adopted a travel ban from high-infection areas in other parts of the UK, highlighting a complicating factor in evaluation of governmental response to COVID-19 which is the divergence of regimes across the UK, as health policy is a devolved competence.

The scale, scope and impact of regulations limiting private and commercial life is unprecedented, and has raised numerous democratic, rule of law, and human rights concerns. There is no perfect legislative or policy response to the pandemic. There are, however, good practices and principles which can guide action and lead to a more effective response which have been observable globally. Central to any response to the pandemic is legal certainty, transparency in decision-making, clarity in communication, an early reaction, and coordinated strategy. Democratic oversight in the form of parliamentary scrutiny and external engagement can lead to better quality law and policy when governments adapt to criticism.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 notably did not give or extend specific lockdown powers to government. COVID-19 regulations in England have been introduced by government under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. The Coronavirus Act 2020 did, however, extend powers to quarantine as well as to restrict or close premises as well as the power to prohibit any gatherings to Ministers in each of the UK’s constitutive governments. The six-month Parliament review was a concession accepted by government, against criticism of the length of the sunset clause (two years, with the option for Parliament-approved six-month extensions) in the Act. It allowed for a debate on the expiry of the Act. Despite many criticisms of both the framework of the act, and the use of powers under it, the vote in the House of Commons was overwhelmingly in favour.

However, six months from the introduction of the Coronavirus Act (and nearly nine months from the declaration of a global health emergency), Parliament is operational and far more is known about viral transmission, yet the inadequacy of parliamentary scrutiny remains. An overwhelming majority of the COVID-19 measures came into force either the same day, or within a day, of being introduced by government and without scrutiny (albeit subject to the affirmative procedure which requires parliamentary approval within 28 days). There is little justification where the underlying legislation allows only for measures to be introduced without parliamentary approval where the urgency demands it to be necessary. This is all the more concerning where, for example, self-isolation rules with fines up to £10,000 for breach were applicable within hours of being introduced.

A significant number of regulations have been announced first in press conferences, or to journalists rather than first before Parliament despite repeated censure by the Speaker and the opposition. Backbench MPs have also increasingly criticised the government for side-lining Parliament during the pandemic, and called for greater oversight and control over the use of powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. The myriad of regulations introduced under these acts (and with very limited scrutiny) has translated into hypertrophied executive dominance but not necessarily better governance. Legal uncertainty has characterised much of the government’s COVID-19 response; the lack of clarity and the absence of long-term strategizing has also often served to undermine policy and compliance.

While lack of clarity was a point of criticism in a parliamentary committee report on the government’s COVID-19 response, a further point of criticism was that there were only a six-month reviews, and there was little provision for more frequent and thematic debates on individual measures. Of course the executive is typically best placed to respond quickly in the initial phases of emergency, but it is unjustifiable to continue doing so without scrutiny where pandemic management has moved from reaction to control. Beyond the point of legality and democratic legitimation of government action (Parliament, not government, is sovereign after all), there are clear and positive practical effects of having more and greater oversight. Debate and scrutiny allow for the identification and remedy of confusion, contradiction, or inconsistencies in the rules. This is even more pressing when the individual impact and restriction of personal liberties is so extreme. In good practice observed internationally, states which learn from error, engage with criticism, and adapt have higher levels of compliance and fare better.

Following initial responses to emergency, it is good practice for governments to use all available information to produce guides which communicate to individuals and businesses what is expected of them; what restrictions apply and do not apply; and when and under what circumstances or conditions the rules will change. This can help effective short- and long-term planning both for the government and for the public. The introduction of a new three-tier system in England (in force two days after being introduced) to replace the regime of local lockdown regulations operating since July 2020 is helpful and a positive step towards a coherent strategy. However, ongoing uncertainty as to what it means in practice, particularly in the complicated underlying regime of exceptions (and potentially exceptions to exceptions), compounded by uncertainty regarding the basis upon which areas will be moved from one tier to the next, risks a medium to high (or very high) level of non-compliance.

A foundation of public trust in government action, and corresponding compliance with COVID-19 measures, is transparency in decision-making. It should include publishing the rationale which underlies the introduction of restrictive measures (or for not introducing restrictive conditions against the advice of SAGE) is important for justifying the positions taken. Simply, it is far easier to follow a rule, when the reasoning underlying that rule is clear. The absence of information invites speculation and false assumptions. There is a clear need for a transparent process by which, for example, areas in England will be moved from one tier to another beyond this being ‘subject to review’ based on ‘a rise in transmission’.

Beyond clarity, certainty, and transparency in legal measures and policies, a final aspect underlining the most effective and sustainable long-term policy in tackling COVID is coordination. This is not as only between central government, devolved administrations, and regional authorities, but beyond that to the international sphere. As all states face a common challenge, there is a wealth of comparative experience from which to draw the best practices in tackling a global health emergency.

Note: the above is based on the recommendations within J Grogan and N Weinberg, ‘Principles to Uphold the Rule of Law and Good Governance in a Public Health Emergency’ RECONNECT Policy Brief.

About the Author

Joelle Grogan is a Senior Lecturer in law at Middlesex


The Conservatives are shrinking the state – to make room for money and privilege

Boris Johnson’s talk of restoring sovereignty is a lie. He is handing democratic power to economic elites, not the people. George Monbiot writes in the Guardian 14th October 2020.

The question that divides left from right should no longer be “how big is the state?”, but “to whom should its powers be devolved?”. In his conference speech last week, Boris Johnson recited the standard Tory mantra: “The state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it.” But what he will never do is stand back and let the people get on with it.

The Conservative promise to shrink the state was always a con. But it has seldom been as big a lie as it is today. Johnson grabs powers back from parliament with both fists, invoking Henry VIII clauses to prevent MPs from voting on crucial legislation, stitching up trade deals without parliamentary scrutiny, shutting down remote participation, so that MPs who are shielding at home can neither speak nor vote, and shutting down parliament altogether, when it suits him.

He seeks to seize powers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: the internal market bill appears to enable Westminster to take back control of devolved policies. He imposes the will of central government on local authorities, refusing to listen to mayors and councils while dropping new coronavirus measures on their cities. He claws back powers from the people, curtailing our ability to shape planning decisions; shutting down legal challenges to government policy; using the Coronavirus Act and the covert human intelligence sources bill to grant the police inordinate power over our lives.

His promises to restore sovereignty are lies. While using the language of liberation, he denies power to both people and parliament. He promised to curtail the state, but under his government, the state is bursting back into our lives, breaking down our doors, expanding its powers while reducing ours.

Instead, he gives power away to a thing he calls “the market”, which is a euphemism for the power of private money. This power is concentrated in a small number of hands. When Johnson talks of standing back and letting the private sector get on with it, he means that democratic power is being surrendered to oligarchs.

Under the Conservatives, the state shrinks only in one direction: to make room for money and privilege. It grants lucrative private contracts to favoured companies without advertisement or competitive tendering. It gifts crucial arms of the NHS to failed consultants and service companies. It replaces competent, professional civil servants with incompetent corporate executives.

We need a state that is strong in some respects. We need a robust economic safety net, excellent public services and powerful public protections. But much of what the state imposes are decisions we could better make ourselves. No Conservative government has shown any interest in devolving genuine power to the people, by enabling, for example, a constitutional convention, participatory budgeting, community development, the democratisation of the planning system or any other meaningful role in decision-making during the five years between elections.

The Labour party’s interest in these questions is scarcely more advanced. The 2019 manifesto talked of “urgent steps to refresh our democracy”. It called for a constitutional convention and the decentralisation of power. But these policies were scarcely more than notional: they lacked sustained support from senior figures and were scarcely heard by voters. During his bid to become Labour leader, Keir Starmer announced that “we need to end the monopoly of power in Westminster”. He called for “a new constitutional settlement: a large-scale devolution of power and resources”. Since then we’ve heard nothing.

When challenged on its policy vacuum, Labour argues that “the next general election is likely to be four years away … There’s plenty of time to do that work.” But you can’t wait until the manifesto is published to announce a meaningful restoration of power to the people, and expect it to be understood and embraced. The argument needs to be built – and Labour local authorities, by developing powerful examples of participatory politics, need to show how Starmer’s promised new settlement could work. Instead there’s a sense that the parliamentary Labour party still sees its best means of enacting change as seizing a highly centralised system, and using this system’s inordinate powers to its own advantage.

For many years, Labour relied on trade unions for its grassroots dynamism and legitimacy. But while the unions should remain an important force, they can no longer be the primary forum for participatory politics. Even at the height of industrialisation, when vast numbers laboured together in factories and mines, movements based in the workplace could only represent part of the population. Today, when solid jobs have been replaced by dispersed and temporary employment, and many people work from home, the focus of our lives has shifted back to our neighbourhoods. It is here that we should build the new centres of resistance and revival.

Starmer has so far shown little interest in reigniting the movements that almost propelled Labour to power in 2017. But even if Labour wins an election, without a strong grassroots mobilisation it will struggle to change our sclerotised political system. Any radical political project requires a political community, and this needs to be built across years, not months.
The popular desire to take back control is genuine. But it has been cynically co-opted by the government, which has instead passed power from elected bodies to economic elites. The principal task of those who challenge oligarchic politics in any nation is to offer genuine control to the people, relinquishing centralised power and rewilding politics. Yes, the state should stand back. It should stand back for the people, not for the money.

• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist


What has gone wrong with England’s Covid test-and-trace system?

It was supposed to be ‘world beating’ but experts say it is having only a ‘marginal impact’

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondentPublished: 19:57 Tuesday, 13 October 2020 Follow Robert Booth

When the NHS test-and-trace system was launched in late May, Boris Johnson promised it would help “move the country forward”. We would be able to see our families, go to work and stop the economy crumbling.

In the absence of a vaccine, the prime minister’s “world-beating” system would be worth every penny of the £10bn funding that Rishi Sunak announced in July. The chancellor said it would enable people to carry on normal lives.

Now as pubs are ordered to close, extended families are forced to stop meeting and intensive care beds fill up fast, the government’s Sage scientific advisers have concluded NHS test and trace is not working.

Too few people are getting tested, results are coming back too slowly and not enough people are sticking to the instructions to isolate, they say.

The system “is having a marginal impact on transmission”, as a result, and unless it grows as fast as the epidemic that impact will only wane.

So what’s going wrong?

Over centralised from the start … 

Tasked in spring with rolling out millions of coronavirus tests, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, opted for a centralised system using private firms. The business consultancy, Deloitte, was handed a contract to help run testing through local drive-in and walk-in test sites, with swabs being sent for analysis at a network of national laboratories, many also outsourced. Serco was also handed a deal to run contact tracing, subcontracting work to other firms as well.

The stakes for their success were high. An Imperial College study found if test and trace worked quickly and effectively, the R number could potentially be reduced by up to 26%.


Local directors of public health knew this from experience of tackling sexually transmitted diseases and food poisoning outbreaks, but their role was limited, leaving many exasperated that they were being cut out.Advertisement

As the system got up and running over the summer, ONS surveys of the virus prevalence suggested NHS test and trace might only be picking up a quarter of actual cases.

In July, one of the system’s senior civil servants, Alex Cooper, admitted privately the system was only identifying 37% of the people “we really should be finding”. The clamour from mayors and local public health officials for a bigger role grew.

Finally this week the government admitted cities and regions should be given help to do more.


“We’ve always known that there was a need for a local element of test and trace, as a centralised system does not have local expertise and is not able to cut through the harder-to-reach communities,” Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, told the Guardian this week.

The strain on a the centralised system has been clear. Sarah-Jane Marsh, director of testing at NHS test and trace tweeted last month: “The testing team work on this 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. We recognise the country is depending on us.” She is about to stand down after less than six months in the post.null

Laboratory bottlenecks

Website warnings that no tests were available exposed the testing crisis to the British public on an almost daily basis this summer, especially in September when schools went back.

Dido Harding, the system’s head, said last month the number of people wanting tests was three to four times the number available. National “lighthouse” laboratories in Milton Keynes, Cheshire, Glasgow and Cambridge, had hit capacity.

More than a quarter of people attending 500 local testing centres after being in contact with someone who had tested positive, were simply turned away because they did not have symptoms.

The scale of the task was shown when Harding told MPs around half of the available tests were being used by NHS patients, social care and NHS staff.

Such was the strain that tens of thousands of tests had to be sent for processing abroad.

And the need for testing will only increase.


Johnson has promised daily testing capacity of 500,000 by the end of this month. On Tuesday it stood at 309,000 .

Already a long way off from the target, the system will come under greater pressure over the coming weeks. On Tuesday, the government finally said visitors to care homes could be tested regularly to try and end the isolation caused by their visits to loved ones being banned. There are 400,000 care home residents.

Slow results

New laboratories in Newcastle, Bracknell, Newport and Charnwood should open within weeks and they can’t come soon enough. As far back as May, Sage experts said the speed of results had a significant impact on the reproduction rate of the virus. Turnaround times should be 24 hours or less and it was “essential” this capability was reached by the autumn/winter flu season.

Johnson pledged in on 3 June to “get all [non-postal] tests turned around in 24 hours by the end of June”.

But for the last week of September, the percentage of test results returned within 24 hours in the community testing was no greater than a third. Nearly nine out of 10 Covid-19 tests taken under the system used by care homes in England were returned after 48 hours in September. Kathy Roberts, chair of the Care Providers Alliance, told MPs on Tuesday she doesn’t have confidence in the government’s test-and-trace strategy.

“The percentage of returns is still too low,” she said. “It has improved for people on discharge but not for the workforce.”

Last month Greg Clarke MP, chairman of the Commons science and technology committee, asked Harding if the failure of the testing system was “driving the increase in the pandemic”.

“I strongly refute that the system is failing,” she replied.

Tech problems

The data blunder that caused nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases to go unreported in England last month when they disappeared from an spreadsheet, was not an isolated IT problem. The government’s first attempt to build an app to track infections was abandoned in June after months in development.

A new approach is costing an estimated £36m in development and running costs in the first year. The app allows users to check into venues and receive alerts if they have been close to someone infected, as long as the infected person tells their app. But it has yet to find its feet.

For a while people tested in NHS and PHE settings could not input their results, meaning thousands were being missed. A function which is supposed to alert people when they have been in a place where there has been an outbreak has only been used only a handful of times, despite more than 16 million people downloading the app.

Some employers have also been asking workers to turn the app off. 

Contact tracing

Figures suggest contact tracers working through the national system have been less successful than local council officials. The percentage of people reached and asked to provide details of recent close contacts hit its lowest level since June at the end of September, with performance worsening steadily over the month. It means about 25% of contacts are not reached at all.

There have been embarrassing reports about contact tracers making no calls for days on end, some catching up on Netflix while being paid to do nothing.

By contrast local public health officials, some setting up their own call centres and redeploying environmental health officers and sexual health experts with local knowledge and properly trained in the job, reckon they are tracing close to 100% of contacts.

The difference mattered particularly in north-west England, where the virus took hold this summer and south Asian-heritage communities proved harder to reach. Ministers finally agreed to share real-time data with local authorities in August but only after several councils threatened to break ranks and set up their own locally-run system.

Local health officials complained the centralised system failed to join the dots on linked infections. For example, it might spot 40 cases in one postcode – but wouldn’t quickly grasp that the cluster was linked to a specific workplace, event, or pub.

“Local residents recognise and can relate to their local council, which is not always possible with a national system,” said Ian Hudspeth, chair of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board. “Council staff can go to people’s homes to make sure they are aware of what they need to do.”

People struggle to self-isolate

Sage estimates that at least 80% of a case’s contacts need to isolate for the system to work.

Last month, however, it found rates of full self-isolation were below 20% and particularly low among the youngest and the poorest people.

A study stretching from March to August, found only 18% of 1,939 people with symptoms stayed at home and people facing greater hardship were less adherent.

Ability to self-isolate was three times lower in those with incomes less than £20,000 or savings less than £100, according to a third study.

Additional reporting: Josh Halliday


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.

LSE blog

A policy scandal of epic proportions: Why a public inquiry into adult social care and Covid-19 is necessary

Bob Hudson makes the case for an inquiry into the government’s slow response to protecting adult social care settings from the coronavirus pandemic. He outlines the three key issues that such an investigation will need to address and the questions it must answer.

The longer the impact of COVID-19 in the UK has continued, the more the focus of concern has fallen upon adult social care. While the NHS has been relatively protected, social care has been overwhelmed: supplies of PPE have been unavailable; testing has been patchy or non-existent; patients have been discharged from hospitals into care homes and proceeded to spread the virus; deaths among residents have reached somewhere between 30-40% of all coronavirus-related deaths; and fatalities amongst social care staff are outstripping those of healthcare workers and the wider working population.

This is a policy scandal of epic proportions and now is exactly the right time to institute a public inquiry into events. At least three issues will need to be included in such an inquiry: fragility of provision; low policy salience; and unethical policy and practice.

Fragility of provision

The fragile financial structure of the industry is such that most providers were already unable to withstand even a minor downturn in income or an increase in costs. Within weeks of the outbreak, the Care Provider Alliance (representing about half of all care providers) was warning that the sector risked collapse without emergency funding to help pay wages and buy PPE. Similarly the UK Home Care Association said the financial pressures arising from the pandemic could force a significant number of the country’s 8,000 home care providers to close. The pandemic will surely require a fundamental reappraisal of a care market consisting of thousands of independent companies making their own decisions on where to set up, what to provide, and whether or not to continue.

This widespread instability equally applies to the voluntary sector where inherent weaknesses have been starkly exposed by COVID-19. Bookings for training and services have been cancelled, charity shops closed, community fundraising halted, and (in the case of the larger charities) investment portfolios reduced in value. A survey of the sector undertaken during the lockdown period found over half saying they would be bankrupt within six months without financial help. With the sector estimating a loss of £4billion, the allocation of £750m by the Chancellor was generally seen as inadequate – a view confirmed by the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee. A sustainable future for the third sector has to be part of a new settlement.

Low policy salience

Adult social care is a residual means-tested service that has always struggled to achieve political attention. This has been exacerbated by COVID-19 in two ways: the easement of statutory duties, and the perception of the sector as a handmaiden to the needs of the NHS.

Rather than ensure that local councils are adequately funded and empowered to respond to the challenges thrown up by this crisis, one of the first responses of the government was to relieve them of their existing statutory obligations. The Coronavirus Act 2020 provided for the ‘easement’ of local authority duties in England and Wales around the provision of care and support needs. This meant they would no longer have to comply with their duty under the Care Act 2014 to conduct needs assessments and provide support unless failing to do so might constitute a breach of a person’s human rights. The latter constituted a very high bar indeed.

Within weeks of the availability of these measures, eight local authorities had taken up powers of easement, even though there was emerging evidence of a decline in the number of people coming forward to seek help because of fear of contracting the virus. Concerns are now being expressed that local authorities are entering into easement without even providing evidence that they have met the necessary legal thresholds.

The tangled relationship between adult social care and the NHS has a long history, with repeated concerns that the shape of the former has increasingly been determined by the needs of the latter. This has been very evident in the response to COVID-19 with the two sectors being treated very differently in terms of the availability of testing, PPE, and even in the ways deaths are recorded and counted. However, the ‘handmaiden’ role of adult social care is best seen in the allocation to local authorities of £1.3billion to rapidly free up 15,000 hospital beds for coronavirus patients by expediting discharge from hospital back home or to alternative accommodation (notably care homes) for those patients for whom a clinical setting was no longer deemed appropriate. This decision alone threw the sector into chaos and is likely to have accounted for many thousands of deaths.

Unethical policy and practice

Over the decades there has been little reflection on the place of ethics in adult social care policy and practice, so there is some irony in the fact that it took the coronavirus outbreak to finally produce an ‘ethical framework’ for the sector. Eight principles for organising and delivering care have been identified: respect; reasonableness; minimising harm; inclusiveness; accountability; flexibility; proportionality; and community. These are useful principles to guide behaviour in any circumstances and it might be considered unfortunate that it took a global pandemic for them to be formulated. Guidance set out ‘an expectation’ that local authorities will ‘observe’ the framework, but application of these principles in the face of tightening of access to support is bound to be difficult – if not impossible – to deliver.

In the meantime, the policy response to COVID-19 has been characterised by a series of highly dubious ethical decisions. The political and scientific interest in ‘herd immunity’ (and the implied acceptance of the deaths of large numbers of older and more vulnerable people) was central to the government’s decision-making in the crucial months of February and March. It was abandoned only when it became clear in an advice paper from Imperial College London that the NHS would be overwhelmed and up to 250,000 deaths, mostly of older people, would be likely.

This assumption that the lives of vulnerable groups are of second-order importance is also evident in other policies – the absence of PPE and testing in the care sector have been noted, but the most gross ethical breach has been in the transfer of infected and untested patients from hospitals to care homes. Not only are there reports of councils refusing to release payments unless these patients are admitted, but where fatalities occur, care homes are not equipped to deal with them ethically. There is typically no GP presence, no palliation, no fluids, no syringe drivers and no staff with end of life training.

Reports also emerged of residents in some care homes for older people being categorised en masse as not requiring resuscitation should they contract the disease. The Care Quality Commission had to step in and issue a warning for the practice to stop. A similar tale applied to adults of working age, with the National Institute for Clinical Excellence being forced to change its emergency guidance to NHS doctors, after disability groups threatened legal action over what they feared could result in certain patients not getting equal access to critical care. Meanwhile, there are no reliable figures available for coronavirus-related deaths amongst working age adults with a learning disability, autism or similar conditions and disabilities. The contrast with the government’s ethical framework could not be starker.

Time for a public inquiry

All of this amounts to a very serious charge sheet indeed, one that requires accountability to be identified and justice being seen to be done. It is insufficient for the government to suggest in vague terms that these matters can be addressed in the fullness of time; they are too urgent for that. The best way to address them is through a public inquiry. Some are already claiming that this is required as a matter of law under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights.

As former Department of Health permanent secretary Una O’Brien has argued, the public would need to be confident that all relevant documents, minutes, emails, texts and even Zoom records were handed over to the Inquiry in a timely way. There would also need to be assurances that politicians, officials, scientific and health experts and others would give their evidence willingly, under oath and in public. And there are four questions to be answered: What has happened? Why did it happen? Who is to blame? What can be done to prevent it happening again?


About the Author

Bob Hudson is Professor at the Centre for Health Services Studies, University of Kent


Despite the overall drop in COVID-19 deaths, the latest data reveal continuing increases occurring in care homes and the community.

Melanie Henwood explains why there is a need for more scrutiny around what is happening in care homes and across the social care system.

The latest weekly death data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) up to 24 April show a drop in overall deaths (all causes) compared with the previous week. It is also the first week in which there has been a fall in deaths since March 20, but the weekly total of 21,997 deaths is still almost double the five-yearly average for this time of the year.

Some of these ‘excess deaths’ are directly attributed to Covid-19: 8,237 death registrations mentioned the virus in the week to 24 April, accounting for 37.4% of all deaths. The impact of these deaths is not spread evenly across the population, and the highest number of Covid-19 deaths occurred among people aged at least 85 (42.6% of all Covid-19 weekly deaths).

Where are deaths occurring?

Where deaths are occurring reveals the most about how the pandemic is developing. The ONS year-to-date analysis tracks deaths by the week and cumulatively. Up to week 17 (ending 24 April) the data for Covid-19 deaths indicate that 71.8% (19,643) occurred in hospital, while the remainder occurred in the community: 5,890 in care homes; 1,306 at home; and 301 deaths in hospices.

But the week-to-week changes reveal more granularity. In just one week (between week 15 and 16) the total deaths in care homes increased by 48%, representing almost a third of all deaths. Figure 1 shows the number of Covid-19 deaths in England and Wales registered up to 24 April by place of occurrence, and demonstrates the shifting pattern of hospital deaths declining and those in the community, particularly care homes, still rising, and equivalent to almost 60% of those occurring in hospitals

Since 10 April, the Care Quality Commission has been collating data on notifications of deaths of residents in care homes where Covid-19 was believed to be involved. Figure 2 shows these cumulative deaths from 10 April to 1 May. The continuing upward trajectory is stark.

The government’s lack of response

Despite the compelling evidence about the rising deaths in care homes, the response from government has been remarkably laissez-faire. On the day that the data showing sharp rises were published (28 April), Matt Hancock remarked – to some astonishment – that ‘the proportion of Coronavirus deaths in care homes is around a sixth of the total, which is just below what we see in normal times’. This is baffling. Deaths in care homes, both from all causes and Covid-19 mentions, are increasing; what the ‘sixth of the total’ refers to is not clear, nor is it clear why the Health Secretary concluded this is below what would ‘normally’ be expected. Given the opportunity in questions to correct this glaring error, Hancock dismissed the issue. Rather, he re-stated that care homes have been a top priority from the start, but that it was recognised there would be challenges because of the frailty of residents. A failure to understand the data, to interpret it correctly, or to present a credible strategy for responding to the emerging pattern is inept at best.

Prime Minister’s Questions on 29 April saw the First Secretary (Dominic Raab) responding to Sir Keir Starmer asking about the deaths in care homes and the ‘truly dreadful’ figures emerging. Raab claimed – again despite the latest evidence to the contrary – that there ‘are some positive signs’ emerging about deaths in care homes. He also referred to the principal challenge in care homes of a decentralised system and lack of control of ‘ebb and flow’ in and out of homes of residents, staff, friends and family as ‘the single biggest challenge in terms of reducing transmission’.

It is wrong, and misleading, to offer a post-hoc rationalisation of the situation merely as the result of a marketised care system which does not operate like the command and control world of the NHS. In response to the challenge, Raab reiterated that there is a ‘comprehensive plan’ to ramp up testing in care homes (announced on 28 April), to overhaul the way personal protective equipment (PPE) is delivered, and to expand the workforce by more recruitment. That looks like a plan that could have made sense several weeks ago, but at this stage of the pandemic it is too late; the upsurge in community deaths reflects the failures of the past four weeks to prioritise social care, or to take any account of how it might be impacted by the decisions made for the NHS.

It might have been expected that there would be some humility, or some acceptance that the dire situation in care homes and the community is a consequence (even if unintended) of the policy to-date in responding to the pandemic. But this was entirely predictable, and therefore – to some extent – avoidable. The focus has been on the NHS from the outset; it is there in the slogan to ‘protect the NHS’ and the imperative to ‘flatten the curve’ of transmission so that the NHS is not overwhelmed. The increase of surge capacity through emptying hospitals of patients wherever possible, and creating new ICU facilities in the pop-up Nightingale Hospitals, also meant that additional pressures in the system would be pushed elsewhere. They have emerged in the community – people were discharged from hospital to care homes without testing for Covid-19; people who became ill in care homes were largely not tested for the virus and most were not admitted to hospital. With inadequate PPE provision, all the preconditions were in place for the rapid and uncontrolled transmission of the infection within care homes and across the social care system in the community. This is the price of protecting the NHS at any cost.

The Prime Minister has spoken of the ‘current success’ of the response to coronavirus, but this does not look like success when the death toll is currently the highest in Europe. We are not yet out of this crisis by any means, but the growing difference between what is happening in the NHS and the fate of people effectively abandoned in social care has to be addressed and responsibility accepted. In a massive understatement at the daily briefing on 5 May, after presenting the latest data on place of death and noting that around half as many deaths are now occurring in care homes as in hospital, the Chief Scientific Adviser of the Ministry of Defence, Professor Angela Mclean remarked: ‘I think what that shows us is that there is a real issue that we need to get to grips with about what is happening in care homes’.

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 6 May, Sir Keir Starmer quoted this observation and asked why the government had not already got to grips with the situation in care homes. Boris Johnson responded that the situation is something that he bitterly regrets but that people are working very hard to get the figures down and to get the right PPE to care homes and to ‘encourage workers in care homes to understand what is needed’. However, he challenged the conclusion about the state of the epidemic in care homes and claimed ‘palpable improvement’ in the figures. That remains to be seen; the deaths are increasing slower but are rising nonetheless, and there is little sense of this being addressed strategically or treated as a priority. Failure to do so, and to continue to view social care as a different level of challenge because of the frailty of many older people needing care, would seem to suggest, at best, complacency. At worst, it hints at indifference, reflecting inbuilt ageism and acceptance of the inevitability of the scale of deaths outside hospitals as a price worth paying.

About the Author

Melanie Henwood is an independent health and social care research consultant.

LSE blog

On the brink of a global crash, it’s time for the UK to show some leadership

A new report has highlighted that informal economy workers across the wold face having their livelihoods destroyed

Dire warnings of a deep recession in the UK, Europe and the developed world are filling the media, with major job losses predicted and stacking up in manufacturing, aerospace, aviation, retail, hospitality and other sectors heading for sharp decline.

A new report from the International Labour Organisation has highlighted the drop in working hours globally due to the Covid19 virus which shows that 1.6 billion workers globally in the informal economy (almost half of the global workforce) face having their livelihoods, not matter how meagre, destroyed.

According to the ILO the drop in available working hours in the current second quarter of 2020 is expected to be even worse than previously estimated. The previous estimate was for a 6.7% drop – equivalent to 195 million full-time jobs as a result the extensive lockdowns across the globe.

Compared to pre-virus levels, a 10.5% deterioration is expected, which equates to 305 million full-time jobs (based on a 48 hour week).

Estimates suggest a 12.4% reduction of working hours in the Americas (compared to pre-virus levels) and 11.8% for Europe and Central Asia. The estimates for the rest of the regional groups are all above 9.5%.

The 1.6 billion ‘informal economy’ workers (the most vulnerable in the labour market), out of a global workforce of 3.3 billion, have already suffered massive damage to their ability to earn even a living.

Without an alternative income these workers and their families will have no means to survive the a recession. The ILO report also predicts that more than 436 million enterprises/companies face high risks of ‘serious disruption’ ie: massive downsizing and closures.

These include 232 million in wholesale and retail, 111 million in manufacturing, 51 million in hotel and food and 42 million in housing and other business activities.

In response the ILO has called for urgent, targeted and flexible measures to support workers and businesses, particularly SMEs.

“For millions of workers, no income means no food, no security and no future. As the pandemic and the jobs crisis evolve, the need to protect the most vulnerable becomes even more urgent.” said Guy Ryder, the ILO‘s Director-General.

Ryder has called for international coordination on stimulus packages and debt relief measures as being critical to making a global recovery effective and sustainable and adds that that ILO standards can provide a framework.

“As the pandemic and the jobs crisis evolve, the need to protect the most vulnerable becomes even more urgent,” said Ryder.

“For millions of workers, no income means no food, no security and no future. They have no savings or any access to credit. These are the real faces of the world of work. If we don’t help them now, these enterprises will simply perish.”

Lacking a powerful global leadership notably from the USA, where Trump is in meltdown, the desperately slow response from the EU which saw Ursula von der Leyen the President of the European Commission having to apologise to Italy and the UK government’s inexperience, self inflicted errors and bungling over PPE and testing means the ILO’s demands coupled with nationalism will be made difficult.

Tony Burke is the TUC General Council’s Lead on employment and trade union rights, Unite Assistant General Secretary, and Chair of the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom

International Labour Organisation