My hope for a more boring Boris

When I was a young chap, I remember having to choose between making my first place of work Siemens in Germany or Siemens in the UK, having done a student industrial placement at both. I chose the UK and remember saying to my friends in a similar factory to mine in Germany how much more fun it is in the UK – ‘We start a bit later, by midday it’s all gone horribly wrong, then we all muck in and we have to work late into the evening, but we get the job done’. ‘You, on the other hand,’ I would say, ‘start early, everything goes to plan, you are back with your families by 4pm, but it’s all so damn boring!’

As my experience grew, I realised that good planning does generally trump firefighting and I spent much of my next thirty years of work trying to marry the best of both worlds. There is, however, no question that the British instinct is to firefight, wing it and under-invest rather than systematically plan. My favourite was a customer who insisted we shipped him a sizeable order of obsolete out-dated technology, so he could keep his already creaking infrastructure going for another 20 years. In Germany, most engineers would have replaced the old technology a long time ago and, if not, would certainly have used its obsolescence as an opportunity to ensure it’s a case of out with the old.

Don’t get me wrong, I have always marvelled at and enjoyed the role of British creativity, ingenuity and flexibility in getting the job done. It is fun. But when it comes to a crisis, admirable as our British fighting spirit is, nothing beats good planning and being incredibly well prepared.

Covid-19, unfortunately a crisis of enormous scale, shows us the virtues of two different cultures. We have all marvelled at the speed with which we can build a number of new Nightingale hospitals. We are cheering on our NHS staff who are doing the most amazing job in unbelievably difficult circumstances. I join in every Thursday in awe of their efforts. We listen with both fear and hope to the daily 5pm Government press-briefing and whilst I know everyone means for all this to turn out for the best, the lack of planning and foresight is very evident. Three weeks ago, we were told of 3.5 million already-ordered antibody tests. Most missed the small print that these tests had not yet been validated and they will probably never arrive. We were told of a significant order placed with Dyson for a brand-new ventilator design, yet these have not been certified for use by the NHS. A less PR-hungry team of excellent UK engineers, with the name of VentilatorChallengeUK did take a more systematic approach to the matter and I am delighted to say that they are now actually delivering ventilators. However, because their approach appeared more realistic and less heroic, it has been too boring to get much of an airing in the over-hyped daily briefings.

And then there were our now much scrutinised deliberations on herd immunity. Right in the middle of a crisis is never a good time to experiment with novel approaches. This should have been thought through well before and sadly it now seems clear that it cost us some critical time.

At the same time, I have been speaking to my family in Germany and Austria and keeping abreast of their approaches. The difference is stark. Calm, measured, planned and reassuring are words that come to mind.

The lockdowns were instant and without delay, having looked at the evidence from China, Italy and others. The leadership was strong and calm, with a strong sense of we are all in this together: not one set of rules for us and another lot for everyone else.

There are no new Nightingale hospitals required, as the existing capacity can cope and has a little spare to help take some patients from neighbouring countries, Italy and France.

Whilst Britain’s promised scaled testing programme is still to arrive, I listened last week to Germany’s antibody testing strategy in great detail, as it scales up this week. It will form a key part of Germany’s exit strategy from this crisis.

There is no Thursday night clapping of the NHS and critical care workers. This may seem unappreciative, but the truth is they feel more appreciated all of the time. They are better paid, have got a much better resourced medical infrastructure behind them and have not just suffered 10 years of deep austerity, a major contributor to our relative lack of capacity. Germany entered this crisis with nearly 5 times more critical care beds per capita than the UK.

The conclusion I draw is that our inability to be amongst the best in coping with such a crisis derives from a culture of bad planning, poor upfront investment and making people with less foresight the heroes rather than our systematic and meticulous planners. The same culture is a root cause of our relative poor economic performance over the last decade, something I have written and spoken about a great deal.

So yes, we need to change our culture to champion the people perceived as more ‘boring’ who meticulously plan ahead of time. Where are the people receiving that same praise as our Nightingale builders for having created well thought through pandemic crisis measures well in advance? And there is no lack of good planners. In 2016 Operation Cygnus pointed to the potential collapse of NHS resources in a potential flu pandemic, but the planners that should have been praised were largely ignored. And experts weren’t trendy at the time either, because they were mostly in disagreement with the populist messages of the time.

And at the core is something very fundamental. Our most successful politicians drive this culture from the top. Those who make a media announcement today that has made their party look strong will get the praise, however sketchy their idea is. And whilst we have many, especially in our civil service who do their best to plan and mitigate, they don’t receive that praise and so everyone is encouraged to become a firefighter. I have worked with some incredible teams in our civil service and whilst their instinct is to be strategic and plan ahead, they don’t get the praise or space to do it.

In German there is a wonderful saying that ‘a fish stinks from the head’. All behaviours and all cultures are driven from the top. I had the pleasure of meeting Angela Merkel a couple of times and I have always marvelled at her incredible foresight, yet understated and calm approach. She has become famous for calling boring and unremarkable politics the best type of politics, an approach which helps create a culture of foresight, in which planning is rewarded. I have also met Boris Johnson a number of times and one thing I can say for sure is that it was never boring!

I applauded Boris’s departure from hospital and am pleased he is well. I will also applaud every time I see an approach that, instead of being short term and seat of the pants, however ingenious it might appear, is long term, well planned and much more boring!

2 thoughts on “My hope for a more boring Boris”

  1. Apologies, there has been a problem in this post accepting comments. Thanks for those that alerted me to this and it is now fixed.

  2. Well said Juergen,

    My experience of working with both German and UK companies reflects yours. And I will add my experiences of UK ministers and the media. Ours is a culture that puts a huge value on social standing, and words. Chatter comes before substance. The ability to amuse, use flamboyant language, to promise much but usually to deliver little. There is little respect for science and engineering because the people who do it are not deemed to be amusing, or of political value. Until NOW. Will Covid change the nation – probably not alas.

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