Director General (Interim), Government Digital Service
Coronavirus was and is a public health emergency. It’s not the first the UK has faced in its long history, and it may not be the last. But, the government’s latest response had an important difference to that of centuries gone by: the role of digital.
The nature of the pandemic robbed everyone of face-to-face communication. Not only with loved ones and colleagues, but with essential public services. And, for the latter – there was no option to stop their work or suspend their service.
This meant digital tools and ways of working became a crucial part of how the UK responded to COVID-19. Led from the centre by the Government Digital Service (GDS), digital, data and technology teams helped millions of people. Under tough time pressures, we set up new services, provided clear and timely information on GOV.UK and solved interoperability challenges.
Building new services to adapt to COVID-19
People needed new services to adapt to the new realities they were facing. So, to date, digital teams have created more than 150 new or augmented COVID-19 related services to help people navigate their new circumstances.
One of these was the Vulnerable People Service; a collaboration between the public and private sector to help those shielding. Set up over four days, the first food parcels were on people’s doorsteps the following weekend. By early August, more than four million boxes had been sent to those shielding.
To date, digital teams have created more than 150 new or augmented COVID-19 related services to help people navigate their new circumstances.
As well as helping people, the government was itself inundated with help. To coordinate this, we set up the Business Support Tool in just four days – which received 40,000 offers of help.
The work on these services continues. As policy evolves, so will what we offer, to keep pace with these challenging times.
The power of a single domain: GOV.UK
Most of these services were hosted on GOV.UK – the canonical source of government information. It was the centerpiece of coronavirus communications and its trusted reputation and site reliability meant millions of people could find what they needed to know.
The GOV.UK coronavirus page gathers the latest pandemic information in one place. GDS built the page in five days and in its first month it received at least 26.4 million page views, and remains under constant iteration.
As with our services, all our work on GOV.UK is data driven. We use data to see what works and what doesn’t – and we make iterations constantly to make sure we continually meet user needs.
All this work required remote communication across government. Silos had to be broken down, and departmental boundaries crossed, to get stuff done quickly and get it done right.
This is where ‘Operation Unblock’ came in. We published guidance on interoperability between video conferencing tools, meaning people could talk to each other and make the necessary decisions. And this work was used right at the highest level of government – with it facilitating the first remote Cabinet meeting.
The culmination of nearly a decade’s work
Our digital response to coronavirus was 10 years in development. It required a decade of knowledge, established tools and embedded ways of working to react at speed, with the confidence and the expertise to help people when and how they needed it most.
Whatever the next stage of COVID-19 entails, digital government has proven it can meet the challenge.