'Whitehall Complexity Makes It Harder For Government To Respond Quickly To Coronavirus'

Speaking to HuffPost UK, Tory MP and Boris Johnson ally Andrew Griffith suggests PM and Dominic Cummings are right to want to reform civil service.

The complexity of Whitehall makes it difficult for the government to react more quickly to the coronavirus pandemic and communicate exactly what is happening to the public, a Tory MP has said.

Andrew Griffith, a former No.10 adviser to the prime minister, told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast the crisis shows why Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings want to reform the civil service to make it more responsive.

He suggested the reason the government has not been able to provide more immediate clarity on the status of GCSE and A-level exams, cancelled due to school closures, is because there are a “whole bunch of different levels and arms-length bodies involved in that conversation”.

But he praised the government’s response to a hugely complex issue, urging the public to get used to a “flow” of information rather than ministers “descending from Mount Sinai with a tablet of stone”.

Griffith, who worked as PM’s chief business adviser in Downing Street and lent his £9.5m Westminster townhouse to the Johnson leadership campaign last year, said: “This has taught us that we have actually federated a lot of important parts of delivering in Whitehall.

“So you remember in early January, just before the reshuffle, there was a lot of talk about how you restructure Whitehall and the best part of that was a focus on really delivering for ordinary folk up and down the country.

“Some of the time it’s taken to respond to some of these things do speak a little bit to that Whitehall reform agenda.

“The reason we can’t come out immediately and say what’s going to happen about exams, about college admissions, is because you’ve got a whole bunch of different levels and arms-length bodies that are involved in that conversation – it’s not what we always would have thought of as the department of education.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson with his senior aide Dominic Cummings as they leave Downing Street, central London.
Prime minister Boris Johnson with his senior aide Dominic Cummings as they leave Downing Street, central London.
PA Wire/PA Images

The Arundel and South Downs MP also urged the public to be more patient for information.

“Often government communications historically has been quite staccato – here I am, I’m descending from Mount Sinai with a tablet of stone, and this in one go is everything you need to know.

“I think for a crisis of this complexity one of the things we are going to see is you have to think of those as more of a flow – so there’s an economic flow, there’s a flow about what’s going to happen in education, there’s a flow about the knock-on impacts through the health and social care system.

“We have to get used to a rhythm with how we are communicated with, but it won’t be all in one go.”

He added: “We’re in a position where things have moved at an unprecedented speed and this is a highly complex issue.

“I think the government has got it about right.”

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Griffith, formerly chief operating officer at Sky, also praised Johnson’s ability in “storytelling” and getting to the “human at the heart” of the crisis, while admitting it would be an “emotional drain”.

“In my experience he’s very resilient, he’s good at listening and then as you have to be, being decisive – ‘I’ve heard the different points of view, I’ve heard the science, I’ve heard the advice, and now this is how we have to act,’” he said.

“But he also cares a lot.

“It’s very easy, I think, from his time in journalism, which is about storytelling and has essentially the human at the heart of it, in my experience. He’ll project very quickly from the abstract, which is a lot of the advice that’s given, to the personal in terms of how that would affect an individual or a particular part of society.

“I think his leadership is good in this but it’s quite an emotional drain every day having to take these decisions.”


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