Boris Johnson’s disdain for local government is a big reason why we are in this current coronavirus mess

Alastair Campbell
·6-min read
NHS test-and-trace staff at a Coronavirus testing centre in Southwark, London (PA)
NHS test-and-trace staff at a Coronavirus testing centre in Southwark, London (PA)

“In case you were wondering how much excess capacity Germany has,” tweeted Financial Times correspondent Joe Miller alongside a photo, “this pop-up at Nuremberg station offers FREE tests for passers-by. Took me five minutes as I waited for my train. Place was pretty much empty.”

I had a similar experience driving into Southern Germany a few weeks ago, an electronic panel advising of the high risk regions in southern Europe, a message saying that if you were coming from one of them, please turn left – to the testing centre, which was right there, by the Autobahn. Vorsprung Durch a proper test, track and trace system, that works. Vorsprung Durch a proper government, that works, nationally and locally.

As I continued the journey, national radio news was reporting that Chancellor Angela Merkel and health minister Jens Spahn were holding a video conference call with leaders and health ministers from the country’s Länder, the federal bit in the title, Federal Republic of Germany. And when I got to the hotel, local TV news had a package on how the Mayors in the region were responding to the coronavirus crisis, and explaining their role in the handling of it.

All over the UK, people are asking “Why?” Why can’t we seem to get on top of this? I wonder whether the lack of German-style genuine commitment to the sharing of power, and a respect and appreciation of what can be done locally, is a big part of the answer.

Here, a mild mea culpa. I did say at the very start of the pandemic that in a crisis, government must centralise operations quickly, and that Number 10 should do a daily press briefing. However, the centralisation I had in mind was one where government co-ordinates, not one where government seeks to control everything, and constantly says how well it is doing it, when the evidence before all of our eyes tells us something very different.

My idea of an effective daily briefing was one used to explain what was actually happening, not stand there and blah, and wait for a standing ovation because they were working night and day, ramping up, putting their arms around care homes, doing whatever it took, or whatever other passing slogans and clichés were thrown out for delectation.

Speak to people running in local government, and you quickly get a fairly common message. Not only is central government showing levels of incompetence they have never before witnessed, under Tory, Labour or coalition; but one of the reasons is the refusal to understand when local can do it better. Some of the greatest successes of this crisis have been local, the biggest failings national.

Despite austerity having starved them of funds, local councils have in the main done a superb job keeping local services running. That the care home sector has been so hard hit has been despite the great work done by key workers locally, not because of it; and their struggles have been made worse by constant promising by central government that they will get what they need, especially in relation to PPE or testing, only to find over-promising to be followed by under delivery.

Many councils reported having to pick up the pieces in relation to food delivery when national planning focused on people shielding, only one part of those especially vulnerable; and reported too that food delivered by government to councils was often nutritionally deficient, did not meet need, or the requirements of different faiths.

When local authorities have been in charge of providing shelter to the homeless, and food to the hungry, in incredibly difficult circumstances, they have done pretty well. Central government has talked the talk on volunteering, but it has been local government that has actually mobilised. Community hubs have often been superb.

Polling shows 70 percent “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied” with the way their local council is supporting them and their household during the pandemic , and only 7 per cent dissatisfied. Confederation of British Industry (CBI) director-general, Carolyn Fairbairn, said the effectiveness of local responses had seen her, and many businesses, shift their view in support of greater local devolution.

The failure to think local, and support local, is a big part of the big picture story of failure on test, track and trace. The government does not think much of local government anyway, especially when of a non-Tory colour, which is why yet more centralising reform is in the pipeline. And they labour under the illusion that the best way for major logistical operations to be carried out is to put big private sector operators in charge, at enormous cost. We’ve all heard the stories of people from Essex being offered tests in Plymouth one day, Newcastle the next, while people in Plymouth and Newcastle are likewise being offered them hundreds of miles away. That is a direct consequence of national over local, private over public.

You can have all the apps and algorithms you want, and no doubt they play a role. But you also need people who know an area. You need intelligence, in both meanings of the word. There are public health and environmental health teams operating locally who have vast experience of the principles required for test, track and trace, because they have done it with regard to tackling HIV, hepatitis, sexually transmitted diseases.

Nobody wants another national lockdown. But that means local councils, not national government - and especially not this one, with its reserves of authority and credibility so low – have to be empowered to design and deliver strategies according to how the virus is manifesting in their area.

But that means central government putting far more trust in local authorities, not merely with the resources needed to deliver all that is asked of them, but in terms of data gathering and analysis. The non-sharing of data, especially early on, was a disastrous error. And given the way mixed messaging has bedevilled UK government communications, it would be far better if local authorities were also in charge of their own communication strategies.

There is something very fitting about Baroness Dido Harding, formerly of TalkTalk, presiding with Matt Hancock over the current testing shambles, and something very Johnsonian about the government thinking she has done so well she should now be considered for the soon to be vacant job of running the NHS itself. Boris Johnson, Hancock and Co do a lot of TalkTalk. It is the DoDo that is going less well. They need to do less, and talk less. The country would feel better for it.

Local authorities need to talk more, and do more, and central government needs to finance and empower them to do so.

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