A critical juncture for public services: lessons from COVID-19 Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

A ‘critical juncture’ for public service reform

1.This is the first report of the House of Lords Public Services Committee. The Committee began its work in February 2020, soon after the first case of COVID-19 in the UK was recorded, and before the Prime Minister, Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, announced a national lockdown on 23 March.1 A second lockdown for England began on 5 November 2020, just before this report was published.2

2.The Committee was established to “consider public services, including health and education”.3 With the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent first lockdown it became clear that the pandemic would have an enormous impact on the delivery of public services in the years to come.

3.We therefore launched an inquiry to examine what the experience of the coronavirus outbreak can tell us about the future role, priorities and shape of public services. COVID-19 has exposed ongoing fundamental deficiencies in the delivery of public services that prevent or hinder people from accessing the support on which they rely, but it has also encouraged public services to introduce highly innovative approaches. This report makes recommendations on how public services should be transformed to address these fundamental weaknesses, and how public service reform should build on the innovations seen during the pandemic. In later inquiries we will investigate these issues in more depth.

4.COVID-19 represents a ‘critical juncture’ for the UK’s public services.4 At certain moments, institutions have the opportunity to choose different development paths. The Second World War is often presented as one such ‘critical juncture’, facilitating the post-war creation of the modern welfare state.5 On 6 October 2020, in his speech to the virtual Conservative Party Conference, the Prime Minister, Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, presented COVID-19 as such a moment:

“History teaches us that events of this magnitude … are more often than not the trigger for an acceleration of social and economic change … We see these moments as the time to learn and to improve on the world that went before.”6

5.This report describes how COVID-19 has already encouraged a radical reassessment in many areas of public policy.

Key conclusions

6.We argue that five fundamental weaknesses must be addressed in order to make public services resilient enough to withstand future crises and to improve outcomes for the people who need and use public services:

7.Unless these weaknesses are tackled, the significant opportunities for innovations in public service delivery which have developed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic may be lost. Some of the most impressive achievements include:

Principles for public service reform

8.Our recommendations aim to “lock in” these and other innovations in order to transform public service delivery. We suggest that the Government and other organisations prioritise the following principles for public service reform:

Our inquiry

9.In this inquiry we used a broad definition of public services: we heard from private- and third-sector organisations which had provided services during the first lockdown. We organised focus groups with users of public services, who reinforced the need for us to hear from people with lived experiences. This approach to evidence-gathering will inform our future work.

10.We received more than 100 written submissions which reflected a diversity of viewpoints, including organisations based in rural, suburban and urban localities across the UK. We took evidence from groups working with children, older people, ethnic minority and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) people; and from people facing multiple disadvantages. We drew on comparative evidence from the devolved administrations where relevant. We also heard from witnesses working in Taiwan, Germany and New Zealand to learn how countries with different models of public service delivery responded to the pandemic, and how this contrasted with the UK experience. We are very grateful to all our witnesses.

11.We invited Rt Hon Michael Gove MP to give oral evidence on behalf of the Government. We also invited the Cabinet Secretary, and the Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office. None agreed to appear, although on 2 November 2020 we received a letter from Lord True, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, offering written evidence.8 Unfortunately, the Government’s offer arrived too late to include its evidence in this report.

12.As well as the longer-term changes that we propose, we hope that our conclusions will help public services deal with looming short-term challenges. At the time of publication, COVID-19 case numbers were once again rapidly increasing across the UK, with the winter of 2020/21 likely to cause additional difficulties for public services.9 We present our recommendations knowing that the battle against COVID-19 is far from won.

13.The Government’s decision not to give oral evidence to the Committee is disappointing. Our aim in this report is not to apportion blame for past failings but to make constructive suggestions for future reform. The Government has stressed the importance of reforming public services after the pandemic; we hope that this report will assist it in this task.


1 Prime Minister, ‘Statement on coronavirus (COVID–19)’ (23 March 2020): https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-address-to-the-nation-on-coronavirus-23-march-2020 [accessed 6 November 2020]

2 Cabinet Office, ‘New national restrictions from 5 November’ (31 October 2020): https://www.gov.uk/guidance/new-national-restrictions-from-5-november [accessed 6 November 2020]. We refer to the lockdown announced on 23 March 2020 as the “first lockdown”.

3 House of Lords Select Committee on Public Services (Public Services Committee): https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/430/public-services-committee/ [accessed 29 October 2020]

4 Q 7

5 Howard Glennerster, The post war welfare state: stages and disputes, London School of Economics (LSE) (12 August 2020): http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/spdo/spdorn03.pdf [accessed 23 October 2020]

6 Conservative Party, ‘Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered his keynote speech today to wrap up Conservative Party Conference’ (6 October 2020): https://www.conservatives.com/news/boris-johnson-read-the-prime-ministers-keynote-speech-in-full [accessed 29 October 2020]. See also Q88 (Professor Tony Travers, Paul Johnson, Sarah Arnold).

7 Economic Affairs Committee, Universal Credit isn’t working: proposals for reform (2nd Report, Session 2019–21, HL Paper 105) p 10 and oral evidence taken before the Economic Affairs Committee, 8 September 2020 (Session 2019–21); 2 (Kate Bell).

8 Letter from Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, Chair, Public Services Committee, responding to an invitation to give oral evidence for the Committee’s inquiry, Public Services : lessons from coronavirus (26 August 2020) : https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/3141/documents/29269/default/ [accessed 29 October 2020] and letter from Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, Chair, Public Services Committee, to Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, responding to his letter of 26 August 2020 (4 September 2020) : https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/3143/documents/29271/default/ [accessed 29 October 2020]; letter from Lord True, Minister of State, Cabinet Office to Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, Chair, Public Services Committee, (2 November 2020): https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/3249/documents/30661/default/ [accessed 7 November 2020]

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