George Freeman MP is former Minister for Life Science at Dept Health and Business, Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board and founder of the National Leadership Centre.
In 1947, Nye Bevan announced the creation of a National Health Service. To a population battered by the depression of the 1930s and the war it seemed an unbelievable post-war promise.
In 1960, JFK announced that America would put a man on the moon. It seemed an impossibly audacious dream.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher promised to regenerate the industrial wasteland of the London Docklands into a beacon of prosperity. They scoffed.
In 2012, when the first human genome had been sequenced at a cost of $100 million, David Cameron announced the UK would lead the world in genomics by sequencing the entire genome of 100,000 NHS patients. Commentators sniggered.
But the cynics were wrong.
Not only were these ambitious targets achieved. But all of them went on to fundamentally change the world’s understanding of what was possible.
The NHS quickly became more than its founders ever dreamed. The JFK moonshot laid the foundations for ending the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviet Union and securing a 50-year American technological revolution. The London Docklands and Canary Wharf are now global beacons of regeneration and prosperity beyond even Thatcher’s wildest dreams.
The 2012 pledge of 100,000 genomes – the flagship of the UK Life Science Industrial Strategy I oversaw as the first ever Minister for Life Science – has now led to UK leadership in genetic medicine, a global race to sequence resulting in the cost falling to €100 per person, and sees the UK now on target to sequence one million genomes (announced by, yes, Matt Hancock.)
So what about today? In March, the Prime Minister pledged that the UK would go from a handful to 250,000 tests a day, and Hancock announced that we would have 100,000 by the end of April. That’s today.
Many commentators are circling over the Health Secretary like birds of prey spying an opportunity for a “gotcha” moment.
Someone will doubtless make the idiotic call for an apology or even a resignation. In the social media game of one-upmanship there are no rules.
An accomplished cricketer, the Health Secretary will defend his wicket, ducking the bouncers and parrying away the spin balls. And the daily media cycle will then trigger a cycle of Twitter trolling, social media memes and vicious personal and political attacks on the Health Secretary for having “failed to meet his own target”.
So, was it a mistake to announce a target that he didn’t know he could hit?
No. Stretch targets are a vital for any leader.
Used properly, in government, business, sport and all walks of endeavour, they have the effect of galvanising the level of culture change, ambition, pace and delivery which is needed.
Making that happen is a big part of what leadership is about. Whole libraries of academic literature, business school teaching and leadership manuals look at the science of stretch targets in leadership.
But leadership manuals cannot begin to capture the pressure under which leaders usually operate.
Nor do they encompass the loneliness of leadership which, by its very nature, is about taking personal responsibility for big decisions with big implications.
In the Prime Minister and Health Secretary’s case – while both in isolation.
Churchill was in a bunker, yes, but it was packed with busy people constantly sharing intelligence and insights and carrying out his orders.
Crisis management by telephone from isolation is a whole new challenge.
The truth is that this crisis represents a genuinely unprecedented challenge to ministers but also to our creaking and overly bureaucratic Whitehall machine, and our local government services pared back to the bone after the financial crash.
After 15 years as a technology entrepreneur before coming to Parliament I’ve long argued that our system of silo’d, centralised, analogue government was already struggling to handle the pace of innovation, digitalisation, decentralisation, personal empowerment and the service level expectations most citizens expect today and can get in the private sector.
The need for rapid change in the pace and mechanism of delivery of HMG is more urgent than ever.
Galvanising this machine to move at pace in a matter of weeks – for example, to build a network of Nightingale hospitals to ensure the NHS could withstand the epidemic – is no mean feat.
Tomorrow we will see how far off the 100,000 tests a day we are. The Health Secretary might pull it off. With the extraordinary increase in industrial capacity and the pace of test production (overseen by Hancock and his ministers), the issue now is getting the message out to ensure that the volumes of people now eligible for tests know how to get one.
I suspect we will have the testing capacity in place to do 100,000 tests a day tomorrow but perhaps not quite the public uptake of tests to hit 100k (in no small part because so many commentators have consistently focused on telling everyone how far away testing is.)
If it isn’t 100,000 tomorrow, I predict that we will very soon be at 100,000 tests a day. And more in the coming weeks to prepare for a controlled phasing of the lockdown exit. In most people’s eyes that is a phenomenal achievement.
And more in the coming weeks to prepare for a controlled phasing of the lockdown exit. In most people’s eyes that is a phenomenal achievement.
In the febrile media environment in which ministers now have to operate, however, this will be deemed a “missed target”.
But in the eyes of the public, I detect a much more forgiving and intuitive understanding of the reality of making stuff happen in government at pace.
Westminster’s “gotcha” politics has little cut-through with voters, who understand that getting big stuff done fast is hard.
Most of my constituents are hugely sympathetic to the fact that the Prime Minister and Health Secretary have actually had Covid-19, which only makes their continuing appetite to lead and take responsibility for the rest of us even more impressive.
In due course academics, analysts and historians will come to assess the successes and failures of this emergency and the lessons for future pandemics. There will be many.
In the post-crisis calls for enquiries and the inevitable political point-scoring, let’s not forget some fundamental but inconvenient truths: Ministers – and chief scientists and government advisers and officials – are only human, and doing their very best in an extraordinary national emergency.
For all the inevitable lessons and mistakes that are bound to have been made in responding to this crisis, let’s not forget the need to view decision making in the context of what was known, believed (and being called for in the media) at the time, and the hard truth that no great endeavour was ever reached without mistakes. Or bold stretch targets.
This crisis has exposed all sorts of weaknesses in our global, national and local resilience to pandemics.
But it has also catalysed a huge culture change in our society, economy and the way government agencies and private sector can work together better to deliver innovation at pace.
Let us ensure that in the race to blame we don’t overlook the race to lead – and foster and support innovation and leadership.
It’s the only way we will get out of this mess and build a brighter future.