Alastair Campbell, The Independent
Boris Johnson. File
“In case you were wondering how much excess capacity Germany has,” tweeted Financial Times correspondent Joe Miller alongside a photo, “this pop-up at Nuremberg station offers FREE tests for passers-by. Took me five minutes as I waited for my train. Place was pretty much empty.”
I had a similar experience driving into southern Germany a few weeks ago, an electronic panel advising of the high risk regions in southern Europe, a message saying that if you were coming from one of them, please turn left – to the testing centre, which was right there, by the Autobahn. Vorsprung durch a proper test and trace system, that works. Vorsprung durch a proper government, that works, nationally and locally.
As I continued the journey, national radio news was reporting that chancellor Angela Merkel and health minister Jens Spahn were holding a video conference call with leaders and health ministers from the country’s Lander, the federal bit in the title, Federal Republic of Germany. And when I got to the hotel, local TV news had a package on how the mayors in the region were responding to the coronavirus crisis, and explaining their role in the handling of it.
All over the UK, people are asking “Why?” Why can’t we seem to get on top of this? I wonder whether the lack of German-style genuine commitment to the sharing of power, and a respect and appreciation of what can be done locally, is a big part of the answer.
Speak to people in local government, and you quickly get a fairly common message. Not only is central government showing levels of incompetence they have never before witnessed, under Tory, Labour or the coalition; but one of the reasons is the refusal to understand when local government can do it better. Some of the greatest successes of this crisis have been local, the biggest failings national.
Despite austerity having starved them of funds, local councils have in the main done a superb job keeping local services running. That the care home sector has been so hard hit has been despite the great work done by key workers locally, not because of it; and their struggles have been made worse by constant promising by central government that they will get what they need, especially in relation to PPE or testing, only to find over-promising to be followed by under delivery.
Many councils reported having to pick up the pieces in relation to food delivery when national planning focused on people shielding; and reported too that food delivered by government to councils was often nutritionally deficient, did not meet need, or the requirements of different faiths.
When local authorities have been in charge of providing shelter to the homeless, and food to the hungry, in incredibly difficult circumstances, they have done pretty well. Central government has talked the talk on volunteering, but it has been local government that has actually mobilised. Community hubs have often been superb.
The failure to think local, and support local, is a big part of the big picture story of failure on test and trace. The government does not think much of local government anyway, especially when of a non-Tory colour, which is why yet more centralising reform is in the pipeline. And they labour under the illusion that the best way for major logistical operations to be carried out is to put big private sector operators in charge, at enormous cost. We’ve all heard the stories of people from Essex being offered tests in Plymouth one day, Newcastle the next, while people in Plymouth and Newcastle are likewise being offered them hundreds of miles away. That is a direct consequence of national over local, private over public.
You can have all the apps and algorithms you want, and no doubt they play a role. But you also need people who know an area. You need intelligence, in both meanings of the word. There are public health and environmental health teams operating locally who have vast experience of the principles required for test and trace, because they have done it with regard to tackling HIV and hepatitis, sexually transmitted diseases.
Local authorities need to talk more, and do more, and central government needs to finance and empower them to do so.