England & Wales, Ireland, Scotland Covid-19

The best crisis response comes from your town hall, not Whitehall


It was 3pm on Wednesday 6 May when the message dropped: “We’ve just had our new shielding list – it’s 12.5 thousand lines”.

Nearly two months into the pandemic, and after weeks spent contacting the 5,000 local people who were identified as needing to shield from Covid-19, the government had sent us a new list of clinically extremely vulnerable people. It had more than twice as many people on it as the first one.

Whitehall had just thrown us another curveball. It wasn’t the first and it wouldn’t be the last.

For Harrow Council, like many others, the story of the pandemic is one of local areas doing whatever it takes to protect residents and businesses and keep services going all while facing increasingly random, last-minute, and ill thought through central government proclamations that we were expected to turn into reality tout-de-suite.

It didn’t start out that way. Our experience of the first days and weeks of the pandemic was instead somewhat surreal.

A day in March would begin as follows. The Chief Executive would meet with us at the start of the day to discuss some potential scenarios. Could we manage with a fifth of our staff off work for two weeks? What about four weeks? Business continuity plans would be dusted off. Backup systems tested.

By lunchtime, the scenarios were out the window. It was time to press all the red buttons, all at once. Buy everyone a laptop. Send them all home. Close the libraries. Shut the swimming pools. Protect social care. Pick up the bins – if we can.

But despite the inevitable chaos of such a fast-moving situation, Councils are built exactly to withstand this kind of crisis.

We are good – really good – at keeping the basic tenets of civilisation going in the toughest of times.

An ideal scenario in a crisis would see councils bringing delivery expertise and local connections while Whitehall offers strategic steer and gets our backs with a clear legal framework, expert guidance, and, of course, money.

The disappointment of this crisis is how far from reality that depiction turned out to be.

Instead, councils fought to keep local services going while trying to deal with unhelpful, overly-complicated central diktats and funding announcements that always came just a few weeks too late. All made worse by layers of additional ‘governance’ and complex reporting requirements. Instead of gathering rich feedback on what was happening on the ground, the government got endless re-workings of largely meaningless templates.

Outside of local government, the idea that a locally-driven emergency response could be more effective than a central one is deeply counter-intuitive. What is central government for if not to take charge in a national crisis of epic proportions?

Yet even on the biggest issues of the day – the provision of PPE, shielding, track and trace, school re-opening, and economic support – Whitehall micro-management has harmed, not helped the crisis response.

Take shielding. The shielding programme was a vitally important tool to protect those most exposed to the virus and to ensure they had access to food, medicine and support while they were being asked to stay at home.

The tricky bit, as always, lay in the execution. How would the more than 2 million people in the shielding group be identified? How would they be contacted? And how would we make sure they got the help they needed?

Instead of asking councils to make use of long-standing, close-knit relationships with local health systems to tap into the rich knowledge and understanding of GPs, nurses, and social care teams, the Government decided to use national NHS data to draw up the shielding list.

That meant that, once complex data transfer protocols were in place, councils were on the receiving end of endless spreadsheets of questionable reliability with no context or ability to interrogate them. We got given lists and were told to start making calls.

As if that was not troubling enough, the government then decided halfway through to change the process entirely. With a new-found appreciation for localism, it asked GPs to draw up their own lists – far too late and with far too little time – and to hand these over to councils to cross-check with the national data.

And that’s when a council like mine suddenly found itself faced with twice the number of names and no clarity on who was actually supposed to shield and who not.

If this was the only misstep, it could have been forgiven as one of a thousand decisions taken in haste during a national crisis. But time and time again, the first recourse of government is to central diktat. Only once that is demonstrably proved to have failed does local delivery get a chance to prove itself.

None of this is an argument for councils to go off in different directions without steer or support. It is a plea for each part of the system to play its rightful role – for the centre to offer guidance, expertise, a legal framework, resources (including financial), and mechanisms of accountability, such as benchmarking data; and for local areas to be empowered to deliver in the way they find most effective. And for both central and local parts of the system to be linked easily and simply together.

That won’t always be a comfortable arrangement for government. Some areas will perform better than others. Some will need central intervention to fix local failings. But overall the response will be more effective with much stronger ownership from people on the ground. It’s time to give it a go.


Cllr Adam Swersky is the Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources at London Borough of Harrow. If your council is an LGIU member, we’d love to hear about your experiences over the past year, so please do get in touch. 


One thought on “The best crisis response comes from your town hall, not Whitehall

  1. When I was a boy along time ago in the fifties local government and central government shared power about 50/50 per cent. Since central government have taken now so much power away from local government they have lost sight of local needs around the country and have created hills of paper work for little positive results. EG your article!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *