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Brexit Prep Left UK “Match Fit” for Covid-19 Crisis, Gove Says

Michael Gove gave evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry)

3 min read

Michael Gove has said that government preparations for Brexit meant the UK was better placed to respond to crises posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who was Minister for the Cabinet Office between 2020 and 2021 told the Covid-19 inquiry that since government departments expanded to take on the extra workload generated by the processes of Brexit, the UK was better prepared to respond to the sudden and unexpected consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. 

Gove, who was a key driving force of the Leave campaign, gave evidence to the inquiry on Thursday as part of its investigation into the government response to the pandemic, with a particular focus on how the government prepared for such a crisis in the years leading up to 2020.

A number of politicians and officials have already given evidence, including former prime minister David Cameron. 

"The first thing is that the civil service grew and expanded in readiness for EU exit and the number of people that we recruited overall both in the Cabinet Office and in other departments grew to take on this additional workload," Gove said.

"The second thing is, as I mentioned earlier, the nature, the pace and the intensity of the work undoubtedly placed pressure on individuals in the system, but it also ensured a greater degree of match fitness for what none of us anticipated, but what was to come, the year after.

"I would argue that the skills acquired, honed and refined during EU exit preparation, helped us not only to have an organisational system that was better in dealing with the crisis, but having a cadre of people who've been through an intense process that enhanced their ability to respond."

Kate Blackwell KC, counsel for the inquiry, asked whether his point instead reflects that there was too much work for the existing civil service workforce at the time, and that Brexit took focus away from preparing for possible pandemics. 

"No, I don't agree with that," Gove replied.

"Because I think that the preparation for EU exit in and of itself was some of the best preparation that could have been undergone for any future crisis."

The housing secretary also said that he believes ministers working in resilience would benefit from training, suggesting they should undertake regular exercises involving military planners and learning from former ministers who have experience in handling crises. 

"Politicians are amateurs. When we are engaging with professionals and experts, what we bring is not deep subject expertise, but what we bring is the capacity to ask the 'daft laddy' question.

"Sometimes, it is only when someone asks that question that we learn the emperor has no clothes or the pandemic preparedness plan has a huge hole in the middle."

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