Covid-19 has exposed the severe weaknesses of the UK’s public sector



Any major crisis tests the major constituent parts of society – their ability to adapt, plan, maintain key functions, and emerge intact. Unfortunately for Britain, our public sector has failed this test across the board.

Whitehall departments remain largely deserted as their infrastructure and services grind almost to a halt. Over a million passports have expired during the lockdown, and a major backlog has not been helped by the fact that the time to apply for and receive a passport online has doubled. The Public and Commercial Services Union, representing thousands of Passport Office employees, has laid down heavy-handed conditions for returning to work, and has resisted any plans to use a small intensive team to clear the backlog.

Meanwhile, more than 150,000 children who have been born during the lockdown have not been registered and have no legal status. It remains unclear how the DVSA will solve the immense backlog of driving tests as they slowly restart. Scotland and Northern Ireland still have no confirmed date for when driving tests will begin again.

The private sector has taken the brunt of this crisis. Pay growth for private-sector employees is down 2.6%. Around a third of UK firms plan to lay off staff over the next few months. Public sector employees, on the other hand, have enjoyed annual growth in regular weekly pay of 4.8%, according to the ONS. While it is expected that the change in the three-month average for annual pay by September will be minus 2.9% for private-sector employees, the corresponding figure for the public sector is a positive 4.9%.

Public Health England (PHE) was the first major public body to fail significantly, as it was responsible for testing as coronavirus arrived in the UK. Unfortunately, PHE spent £220 million on anti-obesity schemes in 2018-19 and just £89 million on tackling infectious diseases. Its major failure, however, was its determination to keep testing in-house, rejecting the opportunity to utilise the resources available in public and private labs. To begin with, all testing took place at a PHE facility in Colindale. By March 11th, PHE had only completed a measly 25,000 tests. In February, the organisation somehow found the time to publish an equality report.

Teaching unions have been no exception. Keep in mind that the Royal College of Paediatricians found in April that there have been no reported cases of children under 10 passing the virus on to another individual. While private schools ploughed ahead with full online tuition once lockdown began, the National Education Union (NEU) told its 450,000 members in May to cease marking work and keep online tuition “to a minimum.” It also told its members not to try remote teaching if they “feel uncomfortable.” Its list of demands for allowing teachers to go back to work included mapped locations of lidded bins in classrooms, full health and safety risk assessments for leaving doors and windows open, along with 167 other demands.

Local councils such as Bury and Calderdale were quick to reject the Government’s timetable for sending children back to school. Bury announced the results of its public consultation 24 hours before it had actually finished. A joint letter from the NEU, Unison and GMB was sent to headteachers and principals in May, stating that any decision to resume educating children in classrooms carries a legal liability under the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974. The NEU set up a petition to encourage parents to publicise their objections to government guidance. Their leaders asserted that the government must satisfy five tests to guarantee the staff and pupils would be safe, while writing in a letter to the PM that the idea that social distancing could be practised in schools was “foolhardy.” Meanwhile, evidence from 22 EU states that have returned children to school shows that there is a minuscule risk to teachers and pupils. The obstructionist hysteria of the teaching unions only serves to widen the gap in social mobility between poor and better-off children.

Key parts of our public sector have failed miserably to adapt to the coronavirus crisis and bring us back to normality. They have instead been childish and eye-wateringly incompetent. Their reward? A pay rise from the government, favouring teachers most, who will receive a pay increase of 3.1%. The public sector has always been a monolithic blob of ineptitude and unaccountability, but recent events have laid that fact barer than ever.

Max Young is Deputy Editor of Free Market Conservatives. Follow him on Twitter at @maxneoliberal