Apr 26, 2020

Where are the captains of industry now?

written by Lisa Eason

Who are the heroes and zeroes in the leadership stakes in this crisis? It is pretty straightforward to select the real failures: those running the Chinese Communist Party, who misled the world about the unleashing of the virus; the bosses at the World Health Organisation, who swallowed the lies from Beijing; and the senior team at Public Health England, who were hopelessly unprepared.

However, there are others who have been unimpressive.

Where are the captains of industry, who should have been visibly defending the private sector?

Absolutely all the decision-makers — politicians, civil servants and academics — are from the public sector, yet they ordered the shutdown of most industry and commerce and classed much of it as non-essential, prioritising institutions such as the NHS to the virtual exclusion of any other considerations. No public sector body faces insolvency, rescue refinancings or mass redundancies, as much of business does. Yet the private sector employs 85% of workers and must generate all the tax to pay for public services. It feels as if business has been entirely absent from any considerations by government.

Almost no chief executives or chairmen of large companies have been visible explaining the necessary trade-offs. Such bosses are normally keen on media interviews, awards and even honours — but seem completely absent from the debate during this critical time.

It’s hard not to conclude that they are cowards and are derelict in their roles as leaders of capitalist enterprises. Instead they hide away in country retreats, while some even have the cheek to ask (behind the scenes, of course) for taxpayer handouts. So the only figures one ever hears from are the dull functionaries who run lobby groups such as the CBI.

While I admire doctors, nurses, pharmacists, radiographers, ambulance drivers and other frontline staff in the NHS, I have believed for years that many senior administrators at the top of the NHS are incompetent. Disasters in areas such as procurement in this crisis have revealed serious weaknesses.

The brightest people in any health system are the doctors, but in Britain they largely refuse to take on leadership roles running hospitals and major clinics. So health trusts and foundations are almost invariably not run by the best talent — yet the doctors resent the managers who make the decisions. I fear that our almost religious reverence for the NHS blinds us to its failings.

The unquestionably superior recent outcomes in Germany during the pandemic demonstrate that in many aspects the NHS is not the best model.

It is impossible not to be impressed by the exemplary way the Taiwanese, South Koreans and New Zealanders have handled Covid-19. But in some ways I respect the Swedes even more. They have stood alone in Europe in not adopting a full lockdown. They have kept schools, restaurants, bars and shops open and not forced people to stay home, because their scientists don’t believe the policy works. They are keeping the vulnerable quarantined.

They may suffer no more deaths than they would have with a lockdown. They have preserved liberty, and their economy will be in better shape after this. Their contrarian stance is brave in a virtue-signalling world that disapproves of those who don’t conform.

The British government has revealed its weaknesses. The cabinet depends far too much on Boris Johnson: during his illness, it has appeared as if no one is willing to make a decision. You cannot possibly run a country based on the decisions of one man.

Moreover, the domain knowledge and diversity of backgrounds in government has been exposed by this outbreak: not a single member of the 22-strong cabinet has a life sciences qualification, and so they are particularly unsuited to challenging or even understanding the doctors and scientists who appear to be, in effect, running the country. More relevant technical expertise than law or PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) — degrees held by too many cabinet members — would be valuable.

Ultimately, there are only losers and no winners from this crisis, so inevitably there are no heroic leaders. Those one admires are the foot soldiers: healthcare workers, delivery drivers, rubbish collectors, food store staff and others keeping the system going until we can end the awful lockdown and get back to some semblance of real life.