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In 2019 the Global Health Index produced by The Economist Intelligence Unit in conjunction with John Hopkins Health School ranked the UK 2nd out of 195 countries for its pandemic preparedness. In late October 2020 the UK ranked 5th highest in the list of countries suffering from COVID19 related deaths. While there may be some debate about the way these numbers were collected, it is still clear that the UK's response to COVID19 was not as effective as had been hoped. As part of our examination of the reasons behind this discrepancy, we will take a look at the way the UK prepared for handling pandemics. In this case we will be looking at how the action taken by the Government maps onto a set of principles developed to guide an organisation's response to a crisis.





The team developed 10 principles whose purpose it was to guide and test the actions of an organisation facing a crisis. The aim of this exercise is to map UK Government action against these principles in order to identify any major divergence. We accept that any divergence may be the result of two possible causes:



The aim of this analysis is based on the first supposition. We are however open to the possibility of the second being true and are open to that debate.


In the table below we comment on how we see the UK Government's mapping against each principle.


  •  Remember to "fly the plane"




UK Government Response to COVID: This is about how well the Government performed their normal (non-COVID19 related) roles of Government. It is about assessing which aspects of life have deteriorated due to the Government's focus being on the crisis. This begs the questions as to what are the critical functions of Government?


  •  Avoid doing more harm


UK Government Response to COVID: 

Related to the previous point, here we can list those aspects of life that are worse than pre-pandemic and have to question whether this was unavoidable. These issues include:

• The economy.

• Societal Health.

• Hospital waiting lists.

• Performance of the educational sector.

• Trade negotiations.

• The state of the Union.


  •   Identify stakeholders and their real concerns


UK Government Response to COVID: 

It has never been clear

• which stakeholders the Government really cares about;

• What their concerns were.

• What the Government planned to do to address their concerns?

Good practice suggests that these issues need to be managed in a systematic manner. From the crisis management messaging coming out of the Government, it is not clear that they are taking this approach. By trying to make every group that they are the priority, every group feels let down.


  •  Know where you are going and how you will get there (fitness landscape)


UK Government Response to COVID: It is assumed that the Government’s primary goal when managing the COVID19 pandemic at first was to save lives. This is suggested by the Government’s early slogan (April 2020) that was  “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives.” However the Government has never explicitly stated this as its longer term goal. The statement on 17 March 2020 by Patrick Vallance that the country would be doing well if it kept the overall number of deaths to below 20,000 was as close as the Government came to this. Its crisis management goal and what their strategy was for achieving this goal have never been made clear. The lack of a clear goal and enabling strategy has resulted in the Government being pushed around by circumstances where it has tried to react effectively to each new facet of the crisis as it appeared.   They managed what was in front of them rather than getting ahead of the game.


  •   Resolve the problem at the appropriate level


UK Government Response to COVID: 

This principle concerns the issue of where control should be centralised and where it needs to be decentralised. This issue had previously been identified by the 2010 Hine report into the UK response to the 2009 influenza pandemic. This issue is also highlighted in the 2011 pandemic strategy where it states that a "UK-wide approach to the response to a new pandemic but with local flexibility and agility in the timing of transition from one …".

In terms of the Government's management of the COVID19 crisis, its desire to be seen to be in control, seems to have led it to trying to centralise key functions such as testing, track and trace.  There is no evidence that the Government has considered the merits of each approach for all parts of the COVID response system and yet the disadvantages of centralising the testing, track and trace system is clear for all to see.

… what else that they have tried to do centrally would have been done better locally?


  •  Listen and align


UK Government Response to COVID:

Any organisation's response to a crisis will feature a complex mix where there is a risk that one well intentioned activity will have an unintended adverse effect on another well intentioned activity. In the case of COVID19 these adverse effects can be seen in the relationship between:

1. Saving lives versus the damage to the economy.

2. Where deaths from COVID are given disproportionate weight over deaths from other causes.


  •   Prioritize


UK Government Response to COVID: The politics made this very difficult for the Government to articulate as they were not prepared to antagonise any group who demanded resources.


  •   Avoid looking shifty (devious)


UK Government Response to COVID: The Government's communications statements clearly failed to maintain the trust of the public. Their desire to "look in control" has backfired. Their apparent lack of  candor helped to erode the public's trust. This faltering of trust has then been used by all those whose self-interest was to erode trust in the Government further.


  •   Be consistent as you can, balanced with flexibility


UK Government Response to COVID:

It is of note that The Pandemic Strategy 2011 sets out as one of its three principles the need for 'flexibility'. Within this principle is the recognition of the need to balance flexibility with consistency.

The Government saw the need to adapt to circumstances but failed to recognise that the rate at which they wished to make changes far exceeded the public's adaptability. The Government has clearly failed to heed this principle in their management of the COVID19 crisis.


  •  Rest: tired minds make bad decisions


UK Government Response to COVID: The application and relevance of these principles, designed for an acute crisis, are more difficult to see over a chronic crisis such as the current COVID19 crisis. The key point is that people become tired. In terms of the COVID19 crisis, the tiredness in question is the public's sense of exhaustion with the restriction being placed on their lives. It is not clear how the Government is identifying or managing this issue.





We see considerable divergence between our set of principles and the action of the UK Government. At this stage we are unable to determine why this might be the case: we can only speculate that they are either unaware of them or they have rejected them. There is also no evidence that we can so far find that suggests that the Government is being guided by any set of crisis management principles. While we recognise adherence to such a list does not ensure that a crisis will be managed successfully, the gaps identified here do suggest that such a list would provide warning that key issues may need to be addressed. We also accept that there may be good reasons why an organisation may, in a particular circumstance, deviate from one of these principles but that should be the result of an informed debate rather than just be neglect.


As for the validity of this list of principles, this usage has brought to light some of the more obvious gaps in the Government’s response and so can be seen to be useful for this purpose.




Based on the assumption that principles have considerable practical utility to guide and test action while trying to cope with complex situations, it is not clear whether the UK Government has identified and used any set of principles to guide their action. It is clear from our brief analysis that there are clear gaps between their action and what would have happened if they had been guided by these principles.


Learning about Learning


So, what have we learnt about learning from this analysis? As always, in order to enhance the practical utility of this learning, we couch the learning in terms of some questions that managers might ask themselves if they find themselves in similar circumstances. In this case we have one question.


What set of principles is guiding our action, where are we diverging from them and why?

COVID19 Application of Crisis Management Principles

Last Update: 29 Oct 21

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