Seven red pins on the left hand side of the frame, and one black pin on the right hand side of the frame. Pins are on a white surface. Photo by Marks Spiske on Unsplash.Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

COVID-19 and leadership: lessons for the future?

Sciana members convene for the fourth and final virtual meeting in current series

Sciana members, senior ambassadors, and foundation staff virtually convened to reflect on leadership and lessons learned from COVID-19.

The fourth and final virtual meeting of the current series took place on June 23. Speakers included Jennifer Dixon, chief executive of the Health Foundation; Thomas Zeltner, Sciana senior ambassador for Switzerland; and Edelgard Bulmahn, Sciana senior ambassador for Germany.

Ilona Kickbusch, chair of the Sciana Network, and John Lotherington, programme director, were once again on hand to moderate the discussion, which took place under the Chatham House Rule.

Participants considered how national leaders had handled the pandemic, the main challenges the faced, and what this may mean for the future.

Assessment of national leadership so far

The context in which COVID-19 arrived in the UK heavily shaped how leaders responded. There had already been a decade of austerity, which brought reductions in spending in the public sector, alongside considerable political turbulence, including Brexit and two general elections within four years.

Participants heard a “feel-good boosterism” characterises the leadership style of the current prime minister,” but in an emergency, there is more need of competent, technocratic leadership skills, which have been weakened and undervalued in recent years. In the early stages of the crisis, people considered the cabinet to be lacking in political experience, and more recently, differences have emerged between the different countries of the UK, for instance, the easing of lockdown has been slower in Wales and Scotland. Decisions to contain the pandemic in the UK arrived too slowly, and citizens also had to adapt to abrupt changes in policy.

Nevertheless, participants learned there were some shining examples of leadership during the crisis. Highlights include the UK Treasury’s economic support for employers and employees and the technocratic leadership within the NHS that mobilised quickly to prepare hospitals for COVID-19 patients. In the future, participants heard there was a need for leaders in Britain to be technically competent, transparent, and better communicators. A more open approach would see leaders and constituents acknowledge decisions are political and sometimes based on uncertain evidence.

A different set of political leadership challenges arose in Switzerland as a result of its highly decentralized structure, participants heard. Usually, health crises are the responsibility of the cantons, so a key question was when the central government should assume responsibility for managing the pandemic. On the whole, the view was that the central government navigated this central-local tension reasonably well. It picked up control reasonably early in the crisis and has now handed back responsibility to the cantons. Some people felt the Swiss central government used more soft power (e.g., offering advice) over hard power (e.g., making things compulsory everywhere), perhaps more than other countries which had to rely on hard power.

Social media has presented a challenge for leaders about how to maintain public trust when rival sources of information emerge. The Swiss government had its experts and advisors, but younger academic experts popped up with their own, differing views on social media. Participants heard the government acknowledged the experts but distanced themselves from following their advice, reaffirming that it was elected officials’ responsibility for handling the crisis. The government listened and tried to adjust. It allowed different regions to have different rules and was ready to change policy when necessary.

On a less positive note, participants heard the Swiss government was seen as quite isolated and lacking in a global perspective during the crisis. The role of parliament had also received some criticism, regarded as being late to wake up to the crisis, but then bringing more confusion than help when it did get involved.

In Germany, meanwhile, there was a high degree of agreement between the scientists, making it easier for the politicians at the beginning. Participants heard the government had a reputation for technocratic competence, which helped build trust. Until the end of April, there was an unusually high level of agreement between the Federal government and the Länder. The Federal government, with the support of the Länder, took more than 50 decisions, from the early measures to support and fund health care to fight the virus, to economic measures to support employees and the self-employed, and also small and large businesses. These quick decisions helped build trust.

The Chancellor and other senior politicians also reinforce trust at daily press conferences, explaining their decisions and the process of negotiations with the Länder. In recent weeks, the relations between the centre and regions have been more strained, as Länder have decided on different timetables for exiting the restrictions, which has not been popular with the public. Older people and parents have also voiced dissatisfaction with the changes in the rules, as not all school children have gone back to school, and a minority of younger people have not been respecting social distancing measures. In general, participants heard legislators in Germany have been received positively for their work during the pandemic, working across party lines. The AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), however, has taken an aggressive stance opposing the lockdown restrictions.

What challenges will leaders face in the future?

The pandemic has exposed many underlying inequalities in the UK. There is growing evidence people from ethnic minority backgrounds are at greater risk from the virus. Job losses, meanwhile, have been greater among younger people and the low-paid job service sector. Working from home has been easier for better-educated people in well-paid jobs. As the economy reopens, leaders must address these challenges.

The post-COVID-19 “reset,” however, already has a potentially broad agenda. The state has stepped in to support large parts of the private economy: what should be the role of the state in the economy in the future? What should the welfare state look like that protects the most vulnerable, and how should a balance be struck between the needs of different generations? There might also need to be a political reset. Compared to Germany and Switzerland, where Cantons or Länder run or oversee the bulk of health and care services, England’s health care system, in particular, is highly centralised. Questions are being asked about how to make public services more local, and particularly concerning inequalities, about how to ensure decision-makers hear the voices of the disadvantaged.

In Switzerland, the pandemic revealed how dependent the country was on global markets for things essential to combat the pandemic, including masks, medications, and staff. Switzerland does not produce any vaccines. In the past, the assumption was global markets would provide, but now there is a debate about home production of medications and vaccines. As in the UK, the pandemic has also shown who is the most vulnerable in society, including older people and more impoverished families. Who is responsible for these groups: central or local government? Not all cantons are well resourced to tackle these problems, with some struggling to manage contact tracing, with poor data collection.

In Germany, similar discussions are taking place about the dependency on global markets, as well as relations with Europe, heightened as Germany is taking over the EU presidency. Germany has invested in vaccine production, but it is also considering the future of the storage and distribution of vaccines. The pandemic has highlighted several inequalities the government is now investigating, including the conditions within meatpacking factories and the disparities in housing. Germany’s economy has not been as severely affected as some other countries. A significant topic of debate will be how to extend support to economies that have suffered more, such as Italy, where there has previously been a reluctance to provide funding.

During the webinar, participants outlined several common themes applicable to the UK, Germany, and Switzerland. In the future, members hope to discuss further the tensions between individual and collective leadership, the balance between central and local government, and ways to enhance cooperation between countries. Some participants see the pandemic as a chance to build a “learning system” and an opportunity to improve people’s lives by addressing those previously left behind.

By:Ruth Thorlby