Best practices for calamity-ready governments
12 May 2023|

To the dismay of immunologists, virologists and public-health experts, governments are done with learning the lessons of Covid-19. Policymakers around the world, faced with a cost-of-living crisis, are baulking at spending enormous amounts of money on pandemic preparedness. But some of the key lessons concern the workings of government, and even cash-strapped countries should take basic steps to improve their crisis-management capabilities. These measures could also help them prepare for climate change and other potential emergencies.

The United Kingdom’s experience offers some important insights. In 2019, just before the emergence of Covid-19, the UK ranked second on the Global Health Security Index, which rated countries’ capacity to detect, prevent and report epidemics. In 2016, the British government ran a three-day simulation to estimate the impact of a potential flu pandemic, creating a risk-management playbook that it could use in the event of a contagious outbreak. Even so, the UK struggled to control Covid-19 more than it should have. As a recent report shows, the likely culprit behind the country’s messy pandemic response was not a lack of preparedness, but rather a dysfunctional political system.

During the pandemic, some countries managed effective coordination between central and subnational governments. In Germany, for example, national and state-level policymakers came together during the first few months of the crisis to forge a unified approach that allowed for diverse local responses. Similarly, Australian decision-makers joined forces during the initial outbreak to develop a coherent national strategy that integrated local expertise.

In the UK, by contrast, the pandemic strained the relationships between the British government and the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The national government took over the nationwide procurement of personal protective equipment and diagnostics in the first few weeks of the pandemic and spearheaded the Coronavirus Jobs Retention Scheme (otherwise known as the ‘furlough scheme’) with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland following suit.

But the UK’s unified pandemic response fell apart on 10 May 2020, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson relaxed the country’s stay-at-home measures. The leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland vehemently opposed Johnson’s decision. Their protests revealed not only the disconnection between Westminster and the UK’s devolved governments but also Johnson’s ignorance of the country’s governance structure. Pandemic preparedness requires dialogue, joint decision-making and the sharing of information and resources, particularly between governments controlled by different political parties.

In the UK, that failed across the four governments. It also failed at another level in England. The lack of engagement with local governments and cities made it extremely difficult to design and implement an effective pandemic response. While England’s local authorities have extensive and specific duties in emergencies, the national government didn’t know or trust their capabilities. In the decade before the pandemic, the government drastically cut funding to local authorities, leaving them with more responsibility but fewer resources and insufficient capacity.

At the beginning of the first Covid lockdown, local authorities faced a near-existential struggle to deliver basic services. Costs exploded, and revenues plummeted after Johnson’s government suspended businesses’ property taxes. In an effort to keep local policymakers on a tight leash, the government decided to provide additional funding incrementally and review future requests on a case-by-case basis, further weakening local officials’ ability to plan and prepare.

To prepare for future emergencies, the UK government must invest in local data-collection capabilities and crisis-management staff. It must also restore local government funding so that municipalities and regional administrations aren’t stretched too thin.

Another crucial lesson for strengthening governments’ crisis-management capabilities is that policymakers must foster long-term relationships that enable them to harness the power and reach of the private sector. During the pandemic, some governments worked with companies to plan and roll out workplace rules, design programs to support business owners, ensure effective procurement, and invest in testing and tracing facilities, as well as in the development and acquisition of new vaccines.

The vaccine taskforce, which the UK government created to facilitate the rapid production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, is a case in point. But even there, trust and collaboration were limited. In a 2021 lecture on her experiences chairing the taskforce, Kate Bingham, a managing partner at a venture-capital firm, described a deep suspicion of entrepreneurs and managers, who were often seen and treated as money-grubbing fat cats whose only interest was to rip off taxpayers. Government officials, she added, had little interest in understanding the difference between rent-seeking and economically valuable private-sector activity.

Unfortunately, the ad hoc nature of the UK’s response did indeed lead to some contracts going to fat cats and profiteers. In 2021, a group of business leaders produced a roadmap for successful public–private partnerships. They recommended that the government make a real long-term commitment to engagement and action, put merit before existing relationships when offering roles to private actors, and ensure that everyone brings real expertise—rather than merely a desire to lobby elected officials—to the table. Any government wishing to engage with businesses on a meaningful level should embrace these guidelines.

Over the next few decades, climate-related disasters, pandemics, migration waves and violent conflicts will stretch government capabilities to the limit. To develop crisis-management mechanisms that can withstand the coming shocks, national governments cannot afford to ignore the pandemic’s lessons, particularly the need to build long-term, trust-based partnerships with subnational authorities and local business leaders.