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The government is looking for someone to blame for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis

The Prime Minister and his advisers seem to be preparing to use their own bungled response to the pandemic as the rationale for reforming the state.

By Stephen Bush

Three-quarters of business leaders plan to cut jobs to cope with the economic consequences of the novel coronavirus, a survey of 500 business leaders for this week’s New Statesman has found. Only 25 per cent think that the government has handled the crisis well – with Boris Johnson himself receiving a particularly low grade.

Scientists, politicians and serving members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies are among those discussing what they think went wrong with the United Kingdom’s coronavirus response, in our series, “Anatomy of a crisis”, which lays bare the difficult trade-offs and challenges that lie ahead. Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Scottish government’s Covid-19 advisory group, believes that lockdowns are a disastrous non-solution that cannot be a useful or viable strategy for combating a virus so far spread around the world.

The Prime Minister and his inner circle think the problem is that the British state badly needs reforming. Over at the Spectator, James Forsyth sets out their thinking for what a reformed state would look like.

Are they right? Long-time Morning Callers will know that I’ve long thought that Downing Street is too small and too underpowered relative to the offices of most heads of government in the modern era.

But I’m also wary of a government deciding, without an official inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, that it knows for certain where decisions made by government ministers end and structural weaknesses of the British state begin.

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Downing Street and its outriders are convinced that the real story of this pandemic is the failure of Public Health England (PHE). That may well be the case – but PHE isn’t the outcome of civil service groupthink or Whitehall inertia: it is the deliberate product of legislative changes introduced by the Conservatives in 2012, which were voted for by most of the current government. As recently as January of this year, the government’s preferred and only remedy to PHE was simply to increase the amount of money we spend on it.

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And that’s the big problem with both the government’s handling of Covid-19 thus far, and its approach as it now tries to navigate out of the crisis: you can’t reliably identify flaws in the system and eradicate them if your starting point in working out what went wrong is that somebody else was to blame.