Parliamentary Scrutiny of the Government’s handling of Covid-19 Contents

1Scrutinising the Coronavirus Act 2020 and lockdown regulations

1.COVID-19 has posed one of the biggest challenges to the UK Government since the Second World War. The Government and devolved administrations have had to make decisions at pace with limited and incomplete data. This pace was demonstrated by the passing of the Coronavirus Act 2020. It had its first reading in the House of Commons on 19 March 2020, passed through both Houses and received Royal Assent just three sitting days later, on 25 March. The Government set out the five main purposes of the Act:

2.In addition, a large amount of other legislation has passed in a short amount of time. As of 5 August the Hansard’s Society’s Coronavirus Statutory Instruments Dashboard reports that 173 Coronavirus-related statutory instruments have been laid before Parliament.2 Some of the most important statutory instruments have been those implementing various levels of “lockdown” (which are referred to in this report as “lockdown regulations.”)3

3.The purpose of the Committee’s inquiry was not to second guess the bulk of the UK Government’s decisions but rather to analyse:

4.After we launched our inquiry, we amended our terms of reference to include requests for submissions on holding a public inquiry into the UK’s handling of coronavirus. For clarity and convenience, we have decided to report on that matter separately.

5.In total we have published 27 pieces of written evidence and held four oral evidence sessions. The Committee is grateful to all of those who contributed to the inquiry.

6.The Committee did not take extensive evidence on matters relating to COVID-19 governance nor on the Government’s guidance early in lockdown about which industries should continue to stay open. The Committee does however make the following points.

COVID-19 Governance

7.The roles and responsibilities of different organisations and Government bodies in response to COVID-19 have not always been clear. On 2 March 2020 the UK.Gov website published a press release that the Prime Minister would chair a meeting of the COBR Committee.4 On 17 March, a further release detailed that there would be “new government structures to coordinate response to coronavirus”. The release explained that there would be “regular” COBR meetings but also a “daily C-19 meeting.” In addition, there would be four implementation committees that covered health, public sector preparedness, economy and international response, and would in turn feed into the daily C-19 meeting.5 The Chairs of these groups were:

8.The implementation groups were confirmed to us by the Minister for the Cabinet Office in April.6 Minutes of these committees are not published and it is therefore not possible to interrogate what role COBR meetings played in addition to daily C-19 meetings. The implementation committees appear to have been since replaced by two Cabinet committees, the ‘COVID-19 Strategy’ and ‘COVID-19 Operations’ Committees in June.7 While these structures existed to support decision making, press reports in April made reference to a “quad” of Ministers making decisions on the UK’s COVID response.8 It is not clear how this “quad” of Ministers functioned in practice, nor is it known who attended these meetings or how it connected to the formal collective decision making structure of cabinet committees. It is therefore not possible to know what advice the “quad” took when making decisions or whether their decisions had formal authority

9.Confusion as to the precise role of Government Departments was further compounded by the fact that the list of Ministerial responsibilities was not published following the previous general election in December 2019 until 28 August.9

10.The governance arrangements for responding to COVID-19 have not always been clear. Press reports of a “quad” of Ministers making decisions in April raise questions of a parallel governance structure in addition to the formal Cabinet Committee structure. Such parallel systems risk creating silos where decisions are made without the full and proper discussion, advice or consultation that would be expected in Cabinet Committees. Any review of the Cabinet Office’s response to COVID-19 should include an examination of the governance arrangements for COVID-19, including COBR, the C-19 daily meetings, the “Quad” and Cabinet Committees. The Government must in its response to this report set out the governance arrangements and how decisions were made in response to COVID-19.

11.The effectiveness of governance arrangements overseen by the Cabinet Office is something that will continue to be of interest to the Committee and form part of its future work programme.

Government guidance on who should continue to work

12.The Government’s guidance has been subject to criticism for lacking clarity, such as which businesses and organisations should continue to operate with people coming to work. The Government’s initial guidance was that people should work from home and employers should help facilitate their employees to work from home, people should go into work only if they could not work from home.10 It should be noted that it was not possible for all workers to work from home. Research by YouGov indicated that far more middle class workers could work from home that working class workers.11 There was however some element of confusion about people who could not work from home, for example, the construction industry. This guidance also asked noted that certain businesses and organisations had been asked not to close, including those hiring “construction workers”.12 However despite the suggestion that construction workers should continue to operate, many construction sites closed.13 The problem with construction sites was exacerbated when the Construction Leadership Council, a joint industry and government body, published guidance stating “where it is not possible or safe for workers to distance themselves from each other by two metres, work should not be carried out”. This guidance was withdrawn within hours following complaints from the construction industry.14

13.The ability of certain industries to continue to operate was hampered by the closure of schools. Once schools were closed, a list of “key workers” was published on Key workers could continue to send their children to school. This list included workers in:

This list however did not include construction workers.

14.The Government’s messaging on who could continue to work was not as clear as it should have been. The closure of schools and definitions of “key workers” caused some industries to close that could have continued to operate, such as the construction industry. There should have been greater recognition within the Government’s messaging and guidance of workers who kept the economy going during lockdown. The Government must take care to ensure that its messaging is consistent and properly addresses all relevant audiences.

1 Department of Health and Social Care (RCC0017)

2 Coronavirus Statutory Instruments Dashboard, Hansard Society, accessed 5 August

7 List of Cabinet Committees, June 2020, UK.Gov

Published: 10 September 2020