Get a Grip
‘Grip’ was a word widely bandied about in the Civil Service about twenty years ago. It was a Good Thing, and the more you had of it the better. The Government even formed a special unit to expand its sum total of gripness, called the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit.
You didn’t want to get on the wrong side of them. When I casually expressed doubt about a deadline they were suggesting to me, I got a dusty answer, for this was not in fact a suggestion, but an order.
I jest, but what this unit was able to do was ensure that policy was translated into action at local level. This was the top down bit, but it was only able to work because there were receptors on the ground: the seven Government Offices for the Regions. Here representatives for most of the government departments worked together, using their local knowledge to liaise with councils, health authorities, police forces, etc. Stuff got done. Crime fell. Family support saved the NHS millions of pounds.
But come 2010 and the Coalition, the Government Offices were swept away – in a particularly offensive fashion by marauding hedgehog Eric Pickles, who denounced them as ‘… agents of Whitehall to intervene and interfere in localities’, when they were two-way conduits that provided much useful feedback on how policies were working on the ground. (They weren’t even a leftie plot, having been created by John Major.)
Grip disappeared as a mantra, to be replaced by the exhortations to ‘do more with less’ as austerity began to bite. Central government seemed to be washing its hands of local government while at the same time piling more responsibilities onto it: hospitals to look out for illegal immigrants, schools to be more proactive in child protection, police to develop a better response to those with mental health problems.
No wonder the Government can’t get a grip on Covid now: it has absolutely no traction at the local level. To be scrupulously fair, Rishi Sunak has been able to decree furlough schemes and and use central government capacity to administer payment, and we’ve done the emergency send-in-the-army-and-put-up-a-building thing that we’re quite good at, but beyond that…So many of the failures of Covid management are down to the Government’s refusal to engage at the local level, and their lack of capacity to do so even if they wanted to:
- Offers from UK manufacturers to make PPE etc. were spurned in favour of ordering inappropriate PPE from abroad.
- Local councils’ capacity to conduct track and trace, which would benefit from local knowledge, has been passed over, with instead a big contract for serial cockers-up Serco, who promptly breached data protection legislation
- Dismal testing capacity, aggravated by poor admin, has caused endless problems, for example, a Manchester-based NHS worker displaying symptoms of Covid being directed to a testing site near Leicester.
- Decisions on reopening schools being taken without any consultation with schools themselves or education authorities.
This is what happens when you’re caught napping. For all the rhetoric about levelling up, the truth is that the Government literally cannot hear what is going beyond Westminster. How many firms have reported contacting government departments with offers of home-grown support and received absolutely no response? And this lot are supposed to be banging the gong for Britain.
Take back control? They couldn’t wrest a stickle brick from a toddler.