Former audit boss blames 'government machine' for Covid pandemic failings

David Finlay in a dark suit with red tie

David Finlay - a former National Audit Office director - has written a book about the pandemic - Credit: David Finlay

A former director at the National Audit Office (NAO) said the "government machine" ignored warnings to improve areas of its work that were key to handling the Covid-19 pandemic.

David Finlay, who lives in Temple Fortune and from 2003 spent a decade as the head of the NAO's PFI team, has written a book called Coronadiary which both chronicles the first 100 days of the pandemic in the UK and sees him use his expertise to analyse what went wrong. 

He told the Ham&High: "The idea started when I went for a walk in Golders Hill Park the day after social distancing was introduced. This was still a week before the first lockdown.

"Golders Hill Park felt instantly so different. The atmosphere was so unsure, no one knew what was going on and there was such anxiousness. 

Golders Green Area Guide

David was walking in Golders Hill Park in the early days of the pandemic when he decided to publish his diary - Credit: Archant

"I've always kept a diary, and it was then I realised that these days we were living through would likely have historic relevance."

The published diary covers 100 days until the middle of June 2020, when David said: "There was a real feeling that perhaps the worst was over. We were coming into summer and people were seeing the cases dropping. There was a real lull before the storm. 

"I didn't think there was very much to say that wasn't already being said. 

"It was later on in the winter of 2020 – when of course the virus came back with a vengeance – that  I started to think whether my experience could offer insight into the government's response."

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In the second half of the book, David highlights areas around planning, data, and risk as where he feels the government did not react quickly enough in its Covid-19 response. 

He said: "An example would be there wasn't sufficient testing capacity at the very beginning of the pandemic. That meant the government didn't know how fast the virus was spreading and that resulted in the lockdown being longer than people now say it possibly should have been."

He said was "surprised and concerned" to find these areas among those highlighted as weaknesses to the government prior to the pandemic in reports from organisations like the National Audit Office and the Institute for Government. 

"They were being told they had to improve their skills in planning, data, and risk – and it seems to me these were issues they had not maintained at the beginning of the pandemic," he said.

"I am not saying it wasn't a huge challenge, or trying to make light of that, but I think once you understand what they had previously been told, you see some of those shortcomings reappearing."

David said while he would put the blame more on the "government machine" than on individuals, saying it had been "perhaps too easy to mark these kind of reports as noted and move on". 

He added: ""I think I am critical of the government system, in that there were numerous reports from all these bodies – the NAO, the Public Accounts Committee, Institute for Government – that were all saying the same things."

The process of putting the book together he said made for a fascinating reminder of how the early weeks of the pandemic played out.

He added: "I think people reading the book will find it interesting to dip into the diary and remind themselves of the news and the feelings we had during that first 100 days. The diary brings it all back."

Looking forward, he welcomed two announcements made by the Cabinet Office at the turn of the year – setting out a new data strategy and plans to revolutionise training for officials.

He said: "We the public put huge stock in, for example, doctors and pilots having the absolute highest quality of training which includes those three key skills. But we give ministers little or no training in complex decision-making and governance."

The government said it was starting a new initiative called The New Curriculum and Campus for Government Skills in order to address some of the issues David has, among others, highlighted.

At the time, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the move would help "ensuring civil servants across the UK are equipped with the right skills and can develop deep knowledge of the areas they work in".

He said: "For too long training has been focussed on the latest management jargon and ignored specialist knowledge."

Coronadiary: 100 days that changed our lives and three skills government had been told to improve, by David Finlay, is available to buy now.