Tom Holvey - Working in the Eye of the Storm

Tom Holvey

Senior Civil Servant Tom Holvey (Politics and Economics, 2001, Furness) reflects on working on two of the greatest political challenges - Brexit and Covid-19.

It was 2020 and Tom Holvey had been burning the midnight oil as a senior civil servant working flat out for the DHSC on the biggest job of his life - leading on EU access and trade around Brexit - when suddenly the global pandemic hit and by September he found himself propelled into an even mightier role as Director of Covid PPE for the nation. Now he is wondering what else lies round the corner for him.

“Something quiet,” laughs Tom, as he muses on the past couple of years.” People do laugh when I say what my last two jobs have been. Although they are linked because lots of skills I am using now are the same as those required for the work preparing for ‘no deal’ (although we’re not supposed to call it that). They are both major programmes which require the same questions but different answers.”

For the moment his Leeds-based job with the Department of Health and Social Care requires long hours, high stress, weekend working and withstanding media onslaughts against a background of a pandemic which can not remain an academic exercise, given that Tom’s wife is a nurse.

“You just have to plan ahead until the vaccine kicks in,” he says, acknowledging that he has no magic insight into timescales. “Then we will have to decide what we need to do in order to normalise life. It’s not just about now, it’s about what comes next and what it looks like in the future.”

Brexit provided this economist and public policy specialist with a high-level crash course in forward planning which he’s finding vital for engaging with the pandemic. He is also drawing on skills acquired in a rich career which has encompassed working for local councils in York and Stockton-on-Tees, eight years as a local Liberal Democrat councillor in York, standing for election to parliament in 2010, falling out of love with politics, working as Head Economist for the Government Digital Service, and an extraordinary three years as Chief Economist on the isolated tropical island of St Helena.

He smiles as he talks about moving ‘lock stock and barrel’ in 2013 to the remote island accessed via a flight to South Africa and a five-day voyage into the mid-Atlantic in a mail boat, to reach an island which he said had fascinated him from boyhood. As in many island communities he found himself taking on a wide range of roles culminating in chief economist, taking in taxation, economic development, social protection, and a huge marine cable project on the way.

Not only did he and his wife make deep friendships on the island where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled, but they also built coping strategies: “We encountered crazy differences and built a lot of resilience in a very different way from the way you would normally get it. Everything you do is building towards adaptability to a new culture that feels familiar but is its own culture. Being so far away from home and not being able to leave for 3-4 months makes you draw on your own resources.”

His time at Lancaster University (Politics and Economics, 2001) has also provided a practical foundation surprisingly relevant to his current work. He could not have suspected that the Lancaster course he did on the politics and economics of the EU would come in so useful. Working on exiting the EU he knew the institutions, because he’d studied them and found himself explaining structures to his 20-30 strong team. He even brought in his Lancaster text books to help, as he’d found them so useful.

For Tom his undergraduate years at Lancaster were all about friendships, connections and building a foundation for what he thought would be a career in politics. Brought up in Lincolnshire, he admits he had not put it top of his university applications, but fell for it unreservedly when he visited it at an open day. The university campus, the city, its surroundings and the college system captivated him - as did the friendliness he encountered too.

Furness College was the centre of his life whilst he was there - it was where he made most of his best friends. He played rugby and cricket for the university and football for the college. He also joined the Furness Wine Club and went on regular nights out to Blackpool. He also became involved in Liberal Democrat politics in Lancaster city, but avoided student politics.

Although he says he was not very academic at university, he was excited by the teaching of some of the lecturers there at the time, including elections expert Professor David Denver (who he had studied at A level) and Preston King, who had been part of Martin Luther King’s entourage: “A major civil rights activist was there and I was in the same room as him!”

Many of the modules - such as British politics, economics and international economics - were invaluable to his career as a public servant after graduation, but also gave him the foundation on which to change tack as life provided opportunities, including his Masters in Public Administration at York in 2013.

Many connections he made in Lancaster have contributed to the current busy life leads now as a senior civil servant working in the eye of the Covid storm. He says: “What it gave me that stands me in good stead to this day is its really good sense of community and friendship - those things should not be underestimated. Most of work is fundamentally about people. Lancaster had a real people-orientated approach - more so than any other place I visited. For me that was more important than academia. Everything I do now is all about people.”

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