The government will have to adapt to get through the coronavirus crisis now that the prime minister and his health secretary are self-isolating, a former head of the civil service says.
Lord Bob Kerslake told Sky News that Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock – who have both tested positive for COVID-19 – could “continue to function” in their roles but warned decisions need to be taken about who steps in if either become incapacitated.
He said Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, will now play a “critical” role in coordinating the response to the coronavirus outbreak, which has resulted in hundreds of deaths in the UK and forced a country-wide lockdown.
To keep government departments functioning, Lord Kerslake said, anyone who has come into contact with Mr Johnson and Mr Hancock recently should be tested for the virus.
He added it was vital to make sure there remains a “very established system of who does what if there are senior players removed from the scene”.
Lord Kerslake, a crossbench peer, said: “It’s worth saying this is a new government so some of this stuff may not have been completely sorted before the coronavirus hit us.”
As long as Mr Johnson is able to, he should carry on leading the response, Lord Kerslake added.
“The prime minister’s role is crucial at this time, not least because of the visible leadership that the country needs,” he said.
“My sense is the government have made big policy calls, and that’s to their credit really – on things like lockdown, employment protection – but there’s a mass of detail in the implementation.
“If you talk to anyone, there’s still quite a lot of detail to sort out to get all of this fully effective and that requires political oversight.
“That’s crucial to the process so we must have functioning political oversight over this very, very difficult period.”
But Lord Kerslake was optimistic that despite the unprecedented crisis facing Whitehall, technology enabling video-calls will keep things running as smoothly as possible.
“It is new territory; I doubt if anyone has ever experienced anything like this,” he said.
“And I’m sure after this period we’ll all think about how we could improve on it.
“But I get the sense that people are able to operate in this way, they are adapting, there is now reasonably good tech that allows you to hold effective meetings with large numbers of people involved and make clear decisions.
“So I do think life and the business of government can carry on – notwithstanding the very different way in which it’s taking place.
“The adaptability of government and the civil service is very good and I think they are responding well to these extraordinary circumstances.”
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