Just when we thought the worst of Covid was behind us, along comes Omicron. It may or may not be massively serious but meanwhile travel restrictions are tightened, supply chains disrupted and life in general is just a tad more miserable.

Steve Norris

Steve Norris

That said, some with nothing better to do with their time are accusing the government of introducing a totalitarian state because they’ve mandated wearing a mask.

I can only say that if this is what they think totalitarian is, they don’t realise how lucky they are to live in a country where we allow XR and that ludicrous Insulate Britain crowd to do what they do without just disappearing them. Try living in Belarus or Russia, never mind Xi’s China, and they’d find out what totalitarianism is really like.

One feature that has to go is the corkscrew principle: that you have to go round to go up

Incidentally and while I’m on a mini-rant, why do these self-indulgent protestors always disrupt this country, which ranks among the best performers in the world on carbon reduction, and never stand outside the Chinese, Russian or Indian embassies if they want to make a point?

Of more interest to us is the news that Michael Gove is shortly to launch a white paper on levelling up. We all have a vague idea of what that means because since the decline of the industries that drove the Industrial Revolution and as London developed as the financial centre of Europe rivalling New York for world status, the gap between life expectancy, educational opportunity and almost every other index of quality of life has widened to the point where on a small island the inequity has become little short of scandalous.

Michael Gove

Source: Shutterstock / Ilyas Tayfun Salci

Balancing act: if anyone can come up with the right answer it’s Michael Gove

But given the added urgency for Boris Johnson’s government to hold on to those Red Wall seats that were won in 2019, the real issue is what can be delivered quickly to make a difference to people’s lives and what, like the much-heralded rail projects, will take decades to deliver – and, in the process, how to avoid levelling up in the North meaning levelling down in London and the South East. It is still true that London has some of the poorest boroughs in the country and while it has consumed the majority of investment in new infrastructure in recent years it is one of the world’s great hubs and houses many more than live in it, as well as being the goose that continues to lay the golden eggs. If anyone can come up with the right answer it’s Gove, but it won’t be an easy sell for sure.

Lack of skills

One of the issues that Gove is facing is the extent to which the civil service can actually deliver what he wants. In recent years, it has become increasingly evident that ours – dedicated, loyal and hard-working that in my ministerial experience it is – is no longer fit for purpose.

Dame Kate Bingham, the author of our world-beating vaccine rollout programme said as much recently when she noted the service’s lack of skills and experience in industry and commerce. And what she said was endorsed in a letter to The Times by none other than the cabinet secretary Simon Case. He acknowledges the need for change.

One feature that has to go is what is known as the corkscrew principle: that you have to go round to go up. I know of senior people with 30 years’ experience in a department being switched to another department of which they have no knowledge at an equally senior level.

These are very clever people, but as a way of ensuring competence in government, it is frankly a disaster. It assumes that all government needs is serious brainpower and all will be well. Except that without real hands-on experience, it turns out we can spend £37bn on a track-and-trace system that’s been as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike. QED.

Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and Future-Built