The hammer and the trance

A second wave of Covid-19 shows policymakers in a sustained crisis need better situational awareness

Hi, it's Chris from the Tony Blair Institute. In this edition we’re reflecting on the pandemic and the tech policy lessons for governments struggling to manage complex, dynamic systems.

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It was only in March of this year that the first wave of Covid-19 cases was starting to skyrocket around the world. More than a million people have now lost their lives to the disease, and we mourn every one of them.

Early on in the debate Tomas Pueyo articulated an argument for imposing strong measures early in order to avoid a big peak of infections, followed by a long-term effort to keep the virus contained until we find a vaccine. He called this strategy the hammer and the dance.

After a few false starts many countries dropped the hammer, and within a relatively short period of time the resulting lockdowns and other restrictions had the desired effect.

But nine months and much easing of restrictions later, cases in many parts of the world are surging again. Countries like the UK, France and Germany have found themselves with no alternative to dropping the hammer for a second time, with a new round of lockdowns likely to last for at least another month.

It seems governments have a pretty effective hammer at their disposal (when they choose to use it). But rather than seizing the time it buys to develop and execute a long-term strategy, the immediacy of the crisis has put many of them into a trance and then bounced them from one position to another.

A practical strategy exists to ensure these second lockdowns are also our last. It requires a concerted effort from our leaders to get organised and to take the necessary decisions without further delay.

An important question remains, however, about why a country like the UK wasn’t able to avoid a second wave in the first place.

Put to one side the prevarication about masks and hand-washing and social distancing, and all the unforced errors and precautions not taken as restrictions were lifted. From the start of the crisis it was clear we would need an alternative to either doing nothing and watching our health system be overwhelmed, or imposing blanket restrictions at unsustainable social and economic cost.

The obvious answer both then and now is to acquire dramatically better situational awareness, combined with the ability to act on it quickly and precisely. The technology at our disposal in 2020 ought to make this possible. And yet despite the stakes, achieving it has eluded us.

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Shut up and dance with me

The Covid-19 dance is ultimately an optimal control problem: What policies should be implemented, at what times and in which locations, to minimise excess deaths and other economic and social costs, subject to the capacity of the healthcare system, the public finances and other constraints?

One useful framework for thinking about how to handle this sort of situation is the OODA loop, which John Boyd described as the “big squeeze” of his ideas about adjusting strategy in constant co-evolution with the strategic environment.

Looked at through this lens, it’s clear that slow and / or blunt observations about what is going on will hinder performance. Worse still, when yoked to a 20th century political and institutional system that is structurally incapable of orienting to today’s reality or making and acting on decisions at pace, they may fatally undermine it.

There is no easy answer for building the state capacity required to master the OODA loops of the 21st century’s biggest challenges. The operating model for government requires radical reform, and this will take courage and determination from a new generation of progressive leaders.

There are, however, some immediate tech policy lessons that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief.

  1. There is a higher premium than ever on good data. High-precision interventions require high-precision data, made available reliably and at scale. This is partly a technical matter: We have to find better ways to collate data from the front line and aggregate a comprehensive, granular view of what is going on in order to target policy interventions – in relation to both health and the economy (if other countries can manage this then the UK ought to be able to as well). But the most important element is policy leadership, with the right rules and protections in place to ensure that new data, identity and proof infrastructure is compatible with liberal democratic norms and values.

  2. Complexity is best dealt with by networked institutions. Trying to run everything top-down is unwieldy and robs local implementation of context, but at the same time there are scale economies in software and data analysis that it would be crazy to ignore. England’s experience with contract tracing shows how to get this wrong both ways, with overcentralised delivery and inadequate common tools. Stronger, more trustworthy and more open data infrastructure would make it much easier to run a “tight-loose” model, with the centre providing common tools and direction, and local institutions taking both more responsibility and more accountability for delivery.

  3. Technologies that shorten feedback loops should be prioritised. One of the defining features of the internet era is the shift of power from traditional institutions to individuals. Leaning in to this trend can give governments enormous leverage. Smartphone mobility data is a more timely indicator of activity than traditional surveys. Properly managed at-home tests will help us estimate infection incidence faster than lab work. Self-reported health data can change the calculus of risk for rolling out new therapeutics and – in time – vaccines. Connected sensors and devices are transformational for real-time strategy; policymakers ought to push much harder to gain this advantage.

A second drop of the hammer will soon be followed by a second opportunity to dance. Even at this late stage, there’s still time for countries to learn.