Comparing government performance across countries is notoriously difficult: they all have different starting points, and under normal circumstances, they are all tackling different challenges.
The year 2020 is an exception because of COVID. Every government faced the same challenge, and they all had essentially the same starting point.
So, in 2020, every government had the same two objectives:
- protect the lives of its citizens from a new and deadly virus; and
- minimise the economic damage done in the process.
And, against both of these objectives, performance is measurable. For the first objective, the number of deaths per million of population tells us how well each government managed to protect the lives of its citizens. Note that this is a measure of government performance, not healthcare system performance: as the chart below shows, no healthcare system can make up for poor COVID strategy and a good COVID strategy puts almost no load on the healthcare system. And for the second objective, the level of GDP growth (or in most cases, contraction) tells us how well each government managed to contain the economic damage. (In the case of the UK, part of the economic damage was, of course, caused by Brexit and since both the form of Brexit and the timing of the end of the transition period were under the government’s control, it would be wrong to remove the Brexit effect from an assessment of UK government performance).
When we put these two dimensions together, using data from Statista and the International Monetary Fund, we get this picture. (Note that there are a few outliers off the scale and therefore not shown, but still counted in the totals).
Of the 149 countries in both databases, 120 performed better than the UK on both economic performance and COVID death toll; 17 countries were better on the economy but worse on COVID; 9 countries were better on COVID but worse on the economy and only 2 countries – Peru and Argentina performed worse on both counts.
Perhaps this is unfair, given the bounce-back in many economies in 2021. Does the UK look better when we take a longer time-frame? Unfortunately not: based on the IMF estimates for 2021 only Tunisia will perform worse on both measures over the two-year period.
On these objective measures, the UK government is not the worst in the world. But it is quite close – and a very long way from the kind of performance that we would expect in a rich country with a strong science base.
This poor performance is not an accident or an act of fate, it is the result of government action: the wrong strategy, which has also been executed extremely poorly – for example in the irregular way that personal protective equipment (PPE) was procured or the extraordinary failures over the test and trace system.
It is too late to change the past, but it is not too late to learn the lessons and to do far better in the future.
If you would like to hear more or perhaps to help change government policy, please do sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.