Ministers need training in core decision making skills to deal with national emergencies Coronadiary author David Finlay adds to comments made by vaccine tsar Kate Bingham

David Finlay, whose new book Coronadiary identifies that the COVID response was hindered by a lack of training for Ministers in core decision making skills and a failure to react to previous warnings to improve skills within government, calls for Ministers to receive professional training relevant to the responsibilities they bear.

Former National Audit Office Director Finlay’s comments follow this week’s speech by Kate Bingham, who led the successful vaccine task force, in which she accused government of a “devastating lack of skills and experience in science” which hampered the COVID response described by Parliament’s recent report as “one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced.” Finlay focuses on three core decisions making skills: planning, making the best use of data and managing risk. After also taking account of the recent lobbying U-turn Finlay’s stark assessment is “There is a total mismatch between the responsibilities Ministers bear and their lack of training which can be seen in repeated errors of judgement and a lack of professionalism in dealing with standards in public life.”

In his book Coronadiary: 100 days that changed our lives and three skills government had been told to improve Finlay’s analysis reveals findings not previously mentioned in media coverage of the government’s response to the pandemic. Finlay shows how all the mistakes in the government’s handling of the pandemic such as the lack of a rigorous plan for responding to a respiratory virus pandemic, insufficient initial testing capacity to track the spread of the virus and a failure to protect care home residents can be put down to shortcomings in three key skills: planning, making the best use of data and managing risk.

Finlay’s big reveal is that these three key skills which were lacking during the COVID response were skills government had been repeatedly told to improve in reports before the pandemic from organisations such as the National Audit Office, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee and the Institute for Government. “These three skills, planning, making the best use of data and managing risk are integral to the effective management of all complex projects” Finlay notes. “Yet Ministers were very slow to react to the warnings they had been given that they needed to improve these skills throughout government. At the end of 2020 the Cabinet Office introduced a new government data strategy and curriculum for government skills, useful initiatives but too late to have helped the pandemic response.”

In his book Finlay contrasts the high quality training which doctors receive to protect us from danger and the total lack of a formal training programme for Ministers despite the momentous decisions they were required to take on the public’s behalf during the pandemic. “Doctors are trained in planning, using data and managing risk to help them make critical decisions in patient care. Ministers do not have that training yet they were the ones who had to make sense of complex information from scientists and civil servants before making the final decisions on the COVID response strategy which affected all our lives. The whole approach to being a government Minister needs to be professionalised.”

David Finlay is the author of Coronadiary: 100 days that changed our lives and three skills government had been told to improve (ISBN 9781802270792)

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