Inside the UKs coronavirus emergency government

LONDON — In the age of coronavirus, the U.K. is practicing government by emergency committee.

Decisions are being made within a radically reorganized Whitehall structure which, officials say, has often sidelined traditional Cabinet government in favor of a more nimble, pared-back cast of senior ministers and officials.

They operate via four Ministerial Implementation Groups (or MIGs, in the new Whitehall parlance) and within the overarching C-19 Committee, chaired by the prime minister (or, while he recovers from his own bout of COVID-19, his de facto deputy, Dominic Raab), which meets daily.

The governments longstanding emergency response committee, known as Cobra and once a rarely-used gathering of senior ministers, officials, the police, armed forces and other key figures to coordinate the U.K.s instant response to an unfolding threat — terrorism, natural disasters, riots — has also been important, and particularly vital in ensuring the countrys four politically divergent nations move in lockstep against the virus.

On Thursday both the Cabinet and Cobra will meet, with a decision expected on whether to keep the U.K. lockdown in place, three weeks since its implementation. The outcome is a foregone conclusion — the government, acting on scientific advice, thinks the country is only now entering the peak of the outbreak and the measures will remain.

Shoppers wearing PPE including a face mask and gloves buy fruit and vegetables from stall holders at Whitechapel market in east London on April 15, 2020 | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

But over the coming days and weeks, government ministers, officials and their scientific and medical advisers will be forced to decide whether, how and when restrictions can be lifted; grappling with the same awful choices countries across Europe and the world have faced and balancing the risk of a resurgence of the virus that could overwhelm hospitals, with the daily cost to jobs and livelihoods that shutting down the economy entails.

King Cobra

In an ordinary year, Cobra would meet two or three times and was often used for political purposes to demonstrate a government was getting to grips with an unfolding situation.

Partly thanks to its acronym (which comes from the fact it takes place in a Cabinet Office Briefing Room) the committee became a favorite of the media — “Prime Minister Convenes Cobra” was a useful headline, signaling the seriousness of a news event. So totemic did the Cobra meetings become, prime ministers have been criticized for not calling them in response to crises.

Now, particularly thanks to its ability to coordinate with devolved governments, Cobra is far from symbolic.

In recent weeks it has met frequently, with representatives from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations also present.

“It does try to reach a collective decision,” said one Cabinet minister. “Its there to test that everyone is comfortable with what is happening, and so far through the crisis that has broadly been the case. Cobra is very much used to ask whether the nations can move in lockstep and whether everyone is comfortable.”

Alex Thomas, a former senior Whitehall official and now a program director at the Institute for Government think tank, however, said the bigger strategic decisions were still likely to be reserved for C-19.

They would then be “validated or kind of rubber-stamped by the wider Cabinet and Cobra.”

But, he added, “we are in a rolling crisis. The government hasnt seen anything like this for 100 years and its not surprising that Cobra dominates because there are crisis coordination tasks, decisions, actions, that need to happen constantly.”

Despite the mystique, the Cobra room itself, according to one official, is “just a fancy boardroom. Very big table, lots of chairs and three massive screens.”

Meet you in the MIG

Also key are C-19 and the four committees known as MIGs, which were created last month and which feed into Cobra and meet much more frequently, almost daily, including weekends, according to one official.

The prime minister himself, until he became too ill to work, chaired the daily morning C-19 — a priority-setting morning meeting attended by top officials as well as an inner Cabinet of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and Cabinet Minister (and Johnsons favored ministerial fixer) Michael Gove.

The four ministers each chair a MIG, responsible for a key area of government action: Sunaks concerns the economy and businesses, Hancocks the NHS, Raabs international coordination and Goves the wider public sector beyond the NHS.

They have a rotating cast list of ministers and officials from different government departments, depending on the topic up for discussion, and also have representation from the devolved governments, so can make policy decisions affecting the whole U.K., for instance on a multi-billion pound business bailouts scheme being rolled out.

“If you need cross-governmental clearance and buy-in that is where the action happens,” said one official involved in the coronavirus response. C-19 and the MIGs are all served by a newly-set up C-19 Secretariat of officials working out of Goves Cabinet Office.

All this, of course, has taken place largely via videoconference for the past month, with only a few officials or ministers ever in a Whitehall meeting room at one time.

SAGE advice

Informing ministers decisions is the non-political Scientific Group for Emergencies (SAGE) — not a new creation but a group called into action when necessary, which in the past decade has advised the government on issues as diverse as the 2010 Icelandic volcano eruption and fears last year about the collapse of a reservoir in the East Midlands.

SAGE is now meeting twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Chaired by the U.K.s chief science adviser Patrick Vallance, it is made up of a group of independent academics. Membership rotates depending on the situation under discussion but recent calls have included up to 60 people, according to one participant, although only around half that many are core contributors.

Its membership is not published by government, but some participants, including epidemiological modeling expert Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicines Graham Medley, have spoken publicly about their roles.

U.K. Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance | Pool photo by Eddie Mulholland/AFP via Getty Images

They are not obliged to stick to the governments official line when they do so, and SAGE meetings are also not bound by any kind of collective responsibility. It is, in the words of one official, “a democratic collective — in the best tradition of academia — than you would not find in a Cabinet committee.”

“These are all independent academics and leaders in their field and there isnt a binding responsibility to spRead More – Source

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