Sarah Ingham: The Government could learn a thing or two from Britain’s panic buyers

1 Oct

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Who said Britain’s bureaucrats have had an irony-bypass?

The Cabinet Office’s deadline for evidence to formulate the Government’s new National Resilience Strategy was on Monday.

This was of course the day when the fuel crisis intensified and the Governor of the Bank of England suggested an interest rate rise might be on the cards before Christmas. He also confessed to having wondered if locusts might be another calamity to afflict the country.

Biblical plagues make a change from overworked Black Swans, those metaphors for malign events so rare they are only meant to happen once in a lifetime. Except, at present, Britain seems to be visited by a lamentation – an all-too-apt collective noun – of these supposedly rare birds.

Resilience is the ability to withstand or come back from difficulties. This week, ministers were quick to condemn the public for “panic-buying” its petrol, as if vehicle owners have been in a ditzy tizzy rather than acting out of rational self-interest.

For those of us not being swooshed around town in the back of chauffeur-driven Zil limousines – sorry, taxpayer-funded Jaguars – taking opportunities to diesel up cabs and white vans at a time of possible shortage is actually acting with prudence and foresight.

Filling up during a fuel crisis is “identifying, assessing, preparing for and responding to risks”, which, according to 2020 National Risk Register, is what the Government is meant to be doing. But isn’t.

Among the 38 possible threats identified in the Register, including earthquakes and a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear attack, is a pandemic. Covid-19 makes a brief appearance, although it is excluded from the Register’s Matrix of Risk: included, however, is “Undermining the Democratic Process”.

Unlike “Severe Space Weather” or the meteor strike mentioned in the Strategy’s evidence call, this risk actually came to pass, thanks to the Government’s hysterical over-reaction to an illness whose lethality in a historical context is comparatively minor.

Lockdown, which included putting the economy in deep-freeze and led to the greatest interference by the state in our personal liberty in the country’s history, has so far cost Britain an estimated £400 billion. No risk-benefit analysis was carried out before we were all put under house arrest and made poorer.

Trainee reporters used to be told to exercise their judgment. As the saying has it, “If someone says it’s raining, and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the ******* window and find out which is true.”

Labour shortages. Supply bottlenecks. A national debt of £2,225 billion (“V-shaped recovery”: what “V-shaped recovery”?). An energy crisis. Chaos in airport arrivals halls. Inflation. A dearth of doctors and critical care capacity in the NHS. The M25 repeatedly brought to a halt. Whatever next; a run on the pound?

Instead of designing matrixes and writing a Strategy to be published next March, those ministers and officials allegedly overseeing Britain’s resilience should start looking out of the ******* window right now. Ta-da! Evidence.

Last week there were calls for soldiers to man ambulances; this week, it’s fuel tankers. Next week, the Border Force? Next month, the Police? National resilience includes the Armed Forces playing their part; Military Aid to the Civilian Authorities.

Increasingly, it seems that expensively trained personnel are viewed by the Government as little more than uniformed agency staff, deployed at whim to fill the chasms in our civilian infrastructure. Britain is beginning to resemble some sub-Saharan nation like Guinea where the Army is about the only properly functioning arm of the state.

This summer, thousands of DVLA staff stopped pushing their pens and started downing tools as part of industrial action by the Public and Commercial Services Union.

Targeted was the Drivers Medical group, chosen “due to its strategic importance to the Agency and the fact that Ministers are assigning huge importance to backlogs in this area” according a post on the PCS website on July 21. Instead of solely blaming Brexit for the HGV driver shortage, should we also be factoring in shrewd Union tactics? Mark Serotkwa, the new Arthur Scargill, discuss.

Working From Home has had a corrosive impact on the efficiency of most workplaces, including the DVLA. Last week, a Permanent Secretary extolled the virtues of being out-of-office. 

Should she really wish to spend more time with her family as she claims, let her quit the public payroll. Otherwise she should be ordered off her Peloton, onto her bike and back into the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, now overseen by the refreshingly bracing Nadine Dorries.

Conservatives are supposed champion and celebrate the country’s business-folk. The Party used to applaud personal resilience and self-reliance, which can boil down to something as simple as having savings or a pension plan. Those waiting their turn on Britain’s fuel station forecourts are showing the sort of foresight that enables them perhaps to get to work or care for an elderly relative.

In anticipating possible difficulties and making a risk assessment, these “panic-buyers” are setting an example to the Government and its officials.