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Editorial Thursday 25 March 2021: Weird Government: up-talking Matt and outsourcing accountability for TAT

My latest column for BMJ is here, and my latest for HSJ is here.

The People’s Partridge, Health But Social Care Secretary Matt ‘Alan’ Hancock had yet another lively week.

On Tuesday, he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that “the team” in Whitehall’s response to Covid19  had in many ways “hit the ball out the park. There have been areas where we’ve changed the approach because of what we have seen. There are also areas, like the vaccination programme, which will be models of how governments can make things happen, and move fast, and deliver for their population for years and years to come.

“Some of the parts of the response have been unbelievably impressive”, Alan concludes. And it’s true: the issue here is that the credit for the successes is largely due to the Vaccines Taskforce and the NHS.

Alan successfully smuggled his ‘Responsible - who, me, Guv?’ schtick past the FT’s normally-shrewd Roula Khalef and George Parker, alongside an ‘Alan Re-Floated’ narrative.

It is genuinely surprising to see the generally excellent FT being sold the dummy and describing Public Health England as “discredited”.

Not the people who brought us late lockdowns twice, and the outsourced fiasco of Test And Trace? It’s PHE who are discredited? That’ll be the same PHE who in line management, reported in to the Department Of Health But Social Care, then? Exactly as the new Matt Hann Koch Institute, oh, sorry, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/securing-our-health-the-uk-health-security-agency/securing-our-health-the-uk-health-security-agency UK Health Security Agency, will?

Economics with Alan
Alan compared the UK Health Security Agency to “the regulatory architecture put in place to avoid a repeat of the 2008 global financial crash”, which is a fascinating parallel.

The FT piece notes the Health Secretary's past role as a Bank of England economist. In this light, is Alan proposing that, for the 1990s and 2000s ‘Washington Consensus’ vogue for financial deregulation which caused the global financial crisis (triggered by sub-prime US mortgages packaged into opaque collateralised debt obligations), we should read the 2010’s Conservative-driven austerity policies?

Because that's a punchy take.

It’s worth remembering that the fiscally ultra-dry International Monetary Fund acknowledged that austerity was a mistake way back in 2013. The Office of Budget Responsibility wrote to PM David Cameron in 2013 to point out that contrary to Mr Cameron's public claims otherwise, those austerity policies had shrunk the UK economy.

Alan also asserted that the UK can become the leading European centre for life sciences. “We’re going to make it impossible to choose anywhere else to put your life sciences manufacturing in the European timezone … you can export anywhere in the world and we’re never going to put a stop to that”.

Mmmmmm. The EU are certainly making themselves look very foolish, but the decision by India to stop exports from their huge Serum Institute manufacturer will play into this narrative.

Tl, dr – vaccine nationalism is stupid, kids. Don't do it.

Outsourcing responsibility for Test And Trace
Outsourcing news from Test And Trace has become commonplace, but they have genuinely excelled themselves this week.

This was uncovered by Huffington Post’s excellent Paul Waugh, who spotted some key details in one of DHBSC’s TAT contracts with Deloitte.

Management consultancy and major-league TAT cash beneficiary Deloitte is contracted to help provide the Department For Health But Social Care with TAT-related PR and communications, with a requirement to “draft and respond to parliamentary questions, Freedom of Information requests, media queries and other reactive requests” and to “support lines to take and Q&A’s in anticipation of queries”.

So, Deloitte, what do you think of this work by Deloitte?
As Waugh rightly notes, this should be civil service work; as the Good Law Project correctly observe, this has the effect of getting Deloitte to mark their own homework.

The HuffPo piece quotes Gemma Abbott, legal director of the Good Law Project: “we have a government so addicted to outsourcing that it has even outsourced being held to account. If a member of the public submits an FOI request, or an MP asks a parliamentary question about the government spending millions on contracts with Deloitte, it seems that it’s Deloitte at the other end marking its own homework – it is beyond parody.

“Does anyone know where the Department for Deloitte ends and the Department for Health begins?”

Well, quite. The prominent lawyer and FT contributor David Allen Green outlines how this is a further assault on civil service norms.

Mr Allen Green observes that “the parties chose to use wording where the external provider is obliged to draft and respond – and not the civil servants. As you will see, this detail matters when we come to the government’s rejoinder”.

Citing the DHBSC response to the HuffPo story, DAG suggests “either the contractual wording sets out the true intention of the government or that press statement does – both cannot be (equally) true). And if the government’s rejoinder is true, then the legal drafting quoted in the news report would (and could) have been different”.

He further cites the Institute For Government‘s Alex Thomas’ response on Twitter: Thomas writes this as a former civil servant, thus someone who is experienced and informed.

And worried about the precedent being set.