The government’s Covid taskforce, which drives crucial decisions on lockdowns, PPE, and emergency planning is facing a ‘brain drain’ just as the country gears up for a potentially brutal winter, The Independent can reveal.
The department is to be disbanded in the spring – despite ongoing concerns about Covid – prompting a flood of talent to start heading for the door.
At least two senior decision-makers are among those expected to depart imminently, leaving the team ‘hollowed out’ from within, Whitehall sources have warned.
Those who have planned their exit “are some of the best talent we have”, one source said. “They also have some of the most experience of previous upticks in hospitalisations and infections. We’re losing that institutional knowledge.”
The taskforce, set up in the spring of 2020, has been advising the government on the level of cases of Covid-19 and flu the country can withstand before restrictions need to be imposed. It is instrumental in providing guidance for the autumn and winter plan, and for when to reopen, or close off, parts of the economy.
The situation within the taskforce has drawn parallels with the dissolution of the Brexit department, when key officials left their jobs ahead of crucial deadlines. As key dates drew closer, many of the most experienced staff left to pursue new roles. Some 40 per cent of staff left the department in 2019, according to think tank the Institute for Government’s Whitehall monitor for that year.
Taking on so-called crisis management roles, such as those in the Brexit department, can be an effective route for promotion within the civil service, as it shows an ability to deal with operational and political pressures.
Now, the deadline for scrapping the Covid taskforce has triggered a similar effect. It is going through “the start of a brain drain”, according to a second source familiar with the situation. Several senior and mid-ranking taskforce members have already given notice that they will be moving to fresh roles within different parts of the civil service, the source said.
There are 14 roles for the most senior staff in the group, with several layers of civil servants beneath them, tackling areas from testing to PPE provision as well as the potential imposition of new restrictions this winter.
A UK government spokesperson did not deny that plans had been prepared to disband the taskforce in spring next year.
They said: “The Covid-19 taskforce coordinates the government’s response to the pandemic and will continue to do so for as long as necessary. We will continue to ensure that the taskforce has the people it needs to do its vital job.”
The government refused to confirm the exact number of civil servants within the taskforce, but insiders suggested around 100-120 members, based on their own calculations, including some assistance from external management consultants.
“The risk is it gets sort of hollowed out over the winter, and you’re left with a kind of skeletal remains by spring,” said Alex Thomas, government programme director at the Institute for Government. If the winter goes well and Covid-19 is contained with few hospitalisations, then this approach with the taskforce is fine, Mr Thomas said.
However, if there’s a bad winter of Covid infections, which triggers a crisis, “you’ve got an underpowered central team. We might be back where we were in the earliest stage of the pandemic,” he said.
“One of the things that bedevilled the Covid response in the first few months was the absence of this central brokering function,” he said. The taskforce is set up to combine scientific and economic analysis in order to make recommendations for the prime minister and other ministers, Mr Thomas added.
According to Whitehall sources, the taskforce’s input has proved crucial in terms of using data effectively to work out the viral impact of reopening the economy. Their recommendations fed into the autumn and winter plan laid out by prime minister Boris Johnson earlier this week. The same sources remain concerned that a host of restrictions may have to be introduced in winter in response to pressures on the NHS.
The government’s winter plan said that, based on modelling, “scenarios which place the NHS under extreme and unsustainable pressure remain plausible”. It added that “the government must continue to monitor the data and prepare contingencies”.
Still, people familiar with the taskforce’s operations are concerned about its ability to monitor and advise on key data, if it loses key team members who have built up effective relationships with top officials and ministers.
“It is important for the public to understand, as the prime minister suggested, that this could be a difficult winter. But that’s exactly why we don’t need the start of a brain drain when the pandemic is not over,” one Whitehall insider said. “You need to have your Covid avengers assembled.”
The deadlines shared by sources, and in one email seen by The Independent, indicate that the taskforce will be disbanded in April 2022 following a review in March. The group would share out its relevant expertise by redeploying staff to other government departments and to the civil contingencies secretariat in the Cabinet Office.
Some staff have also found themselves on the edge of burnout, after months of operating on a war footing, according to insiders. Others feel they ought to find new roles, or they risk being caught up in hurried redeployment efforts that could damage their careers.
“The moment you set the end for the project, the best people start to drift away because they can see the writing on the wall. You’d be a fool not to start looking at other options if you can see the date coming,” Mr Thomas said.
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