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The Covid Tragedy: following the science or the sciences?

Gus O'Donnell
Presentation

Watch Lord Gus O'Donnell's Annual Lecture above, or read an extended version by clicking here.

"In this lecture I want to suggest ways of assessing the government’s performance in handling the coronavirus pandemic. I also offer areas where I believe the government can focus efforts now in order to confront the challenges ahead, both domestically and globally. It is too early to make clear judgements on the UK record, but I will outline the kinds of issues that will need to be examined in the inquiry to come. I will not engage in trial by hindsight. There was a time when a sentence starting “I’m not an epidemiologist, but…” was a signal that person should stop talking. I hope I do not fall into this category. The primary intention is to use various ways of assessing performance that can inform what is now needed as we learn to live with the pandemic and its aftereffects.

And I should start by expressing my appreciation of the work of all front-line staff who have made incredible sacrifices to treat patients, to help minimise virus spread and death toll, and to cope with lockdowns. In addition, many civil and public servants have worked tirelessly on implementing government policies in ways that make a real difference to people’s lives, from handling a huge number of Universal Credit cases to reopening schools. 

My main concern is with whether the right questions were asked at the right times and whether the appropriate structures were in place to ensure that the best possible decisions were made given the considerable uncertainties at each stage. If I have one take-home, it is this: the government lacked—and it still lacks—a policy framework that can properly assess the costs and benefits of different measures. This is in part because the medical sciences have informed strategy far more than have various other branches of science. A vital adjustment is needed to this now, or the government will find itself without a workable strategy, between a rock and a hard place."

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