Why pandemic recovery must be led my metro mayors and councils – David Blunkett

IT is 33 years to the week that I had 
the privilege of being elected to Parliament by the people of Sheffield Brightside.

Does Boris Johnson have an adequate plan for Covid-19? David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, poses the question.

Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and, at least in my neck of the woods, her government was deeply unpopular.

And as leader of the City of Sheffield for the previous seven years, I’d witnessed first-hand the devastating effect of cuts in public expenditure and their impact on local communities. 

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But one thing you could say about the Thatcher administration was that they had a plan – they knew what they were doing and, on the whole, they managed to get their way.

Boris Jihnson at Prime Minister's Questions this week.

Contrast this with 2020 and the present Government’s “make it up and muddle” during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Don’t get me wrong. This has been one of those rare, major challenges that has affected the whole of the globe and would have challenged any government of any persuasion.

That is why so much slack, including by me, was given to the Government in those early stages.

But, as information emerges, greater light is shed on early decision-making and the evidence of almost weekly cock-ups that you can’t help but think that someone, somewhere should get a grip. This isn’t, however, purely about the last three months, difficult as they have been. As it happens, some of the problems the present Government are experiencing go back 10 years.

To what extent should local mayors, like Sheffield City Region's Dan Jarvis, lead the Covid-19 recovery?

On June 22 2010, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, stepped to the Dispatch Box to announce billions of pounds of cuts in public expenditure over the years ahead.

That austerity programme not only affected so many elements of our public service but the capacity to respond also was the precursor to the catastrophic changes in the structure of the NHS, brought in by Andrew (now Lord) Lansley in the 2012 legislation.

For younger readers, this was a structural change that cost an estimated £3bn to implement and has since been at least partly unwound.

Up to that point, each region of England had a Public Health Observatory, a Director of Public Health and disease-control teams.

Handout photo issued by 10 Downing Street of (left to right) Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty, during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus.

This also included a facility for rapid response for test and trace, overseen by a national body entitled the Health Protection Agency.

Among other things, responsibility lay with this agency to monitor the emerging threat of infectious disease.  The Lansley changes merged this into a newly created central body, Public Health England.

While, at local level, directors of Public Health were restored in part to the role they previously played, their budgets were slashed and the capacity to act curtailed.

This top-down approach, with local government’s finances decimated, was a clear recipe for disaster.

Even Andrew Lansley admits the draconian cuts in resources – estimated to be a reduction in public health spend of £815m in real terms since 2015 – impacted on the ability of all those involved to react to the present pandemic outbreak.

The pain and the risk had been transferred to local government, but the decision-making processes have been heavily centralised in the new Public Health England structure.

Not only did this lead to confusion but also a total lack of clarity who about who was responsible for what and where the power to act really lay. Local government had already lost confidence as well as funding.

Taking new initiatives was seen not only to be risky but, because they were underfunded, to put other services at risk.

No wonder, therefore, that what would have been second nature for local government 40 years ago – using initiative and getting on with testing and tracing back in February – was a non-starter.

So here we are, with the former head of TalkTalk in charge of test and trace and with Serco and Sitel responsible for implementation. 

But let’s go back to February 18 and the minutes of Sage. It was reported by Public Health England they had the capacity, believe it or not, to deal with an outbreak involving five people and 800 potential contacts to trace. This, they said, could be scaled to 50 infections and 8,000 traces.

At a local level across the country, men and women, rather than technology, could have been mobilised to do the job. 

And my point? It is absolutely crucial that in the months ahead we start to restore confidence in local government.

It will, of course, cost money. Central government should be challenged to fund collaborative programmes but, waiting for them to do it is frankly like waiting for Godot.

We’ve waited for the protective equipment, we’ve waited for test and trace, we’ve waited for the specific advice in a whole range of areas of our lives as we unlock.

One thing is absolutely clear. While central government will have to take responsibility, because only they can, for raising the eye-watering sums needed for recovery and regeneration of our economic and social life, it will be at local level that the plans must now be put in place. This time we cannot wait.

It will entail local mayors, council leaders and the business community taking the initiative, working together with the voluntary sector, to put together ambitious and coherent programmes.

Linked with further and higher education, and with specific projects to offer young people education, training and the chance of a job, we must restore confidence across our region. Confidence, collaboration and clarity of purpose must be our watchwords. 

Yorkshire common sense and Yorkshire grit will get us through and help us build for a better tomorrow, but it will only happen if we do it together.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former Home Secretary.

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