Government not as prepared for a pandemic as it could have been, watchdog finds

Watchdog says £372bn costs to date will be increased by “medium and long-term” commitments and liabilities
Prime minister Boris Johnson gives a coronavirus update in July 2020. Photo: PA

By Jim Dunton

19 May 2021

Departments lacked detailed contingency plans to deal with the coronavirus pandemic as it unfolded and the crisis has highlighted the need for government to adopt a more systematic approach to ensuring the resilience of key services, according to the National Audit Office.

An initial lessons-learned report from the public-spending watchdog says Covid-19 “stress-tested the government’s ability to deal with unforeseen events and extreme shocks” and found the UK was not as prepared for the pandemic as it could have been.

The NAO also warned that the current £372bn cost estimate of the UK’s pandemic response should not be regarded as a short-term expense. It said some commitments and liabilities were likely to remain for the medium and long term, with “significant uncertainties about their amount and timeframe”.

The 48-page report said the government’s pre-existing contingency planning for  pandemics did not include detailed plans for key issues in the Covid-19 response, such as identifying a large population advised to shield, the potential need for employment-support schemes, and managing mass disruption to schooling.

The NAO said the testing of plans and policies for the identification and shielding of clinically extremely vulnerable people had not been one of the objectives of 2016’s Exercise Cygnus project, carried out to assess the UK’s preparedness for an influenza pandemic.

The report said obtaining contact information on some 420,000 clinically extremely vulnerable people took several weeks longer than it had to centrally identify an initial tranche of 870,000 people because of “the challenge of extracting usable data from different NHS and GP IT systems”.

Meanwhile, HM Revenue and Customs was forced to rely on planning for financial rescues and the experience of other countries in its initial response to the economic support packages required in spring last year, the NAO said.

It added that the Department for Education’s emergency response function had been designed to manage disruptions due to localised events such as floods.

The NAO also found areas to praise, and said there were “many examples of impressive national and local responses” to the urgent need for healthcare and economic support that the pandemic created.

But the watchdog said the nation’s experience with Covid-19 showed the need for a more systematic approach to preparing for crises and making better use of data in the process. It flagged the proper integration of NHS and adult-social-care services as an important area for improvement, noting that “certain aspects” of the pandemic response – such as the supply of personal protective equipment – reflected a greater emphasis on health than on social care.

NAO head Gareth Davies said it was vital for ministers and senior officials to pay close attention to what had worked well – and what had not – over the past 15 months to better prepare the nation for future emergencies and improve day-to-day efficiency.

“Departments will need to reflect on the lessons learned to ensure that they capitalise on the benefits and opportunities these new ways of working have brought,” he said.

“While the response to the pandemic has provided new learning from both what has worked well and what has not worked well, it has also laid bare existing fault lines within society, such as the risk of widening inequalities, and within public service delivery and government itself.

“The relationship between adult social care and the NHS, workforce shortages, the challenges posed by legacy data and IT systems, and the financial pressure felt by parts of the system all require long-term solutions.”

Cabinet Office perm sec Alex Chisholm yesterday acknowledged there was “no question” that the government could have done a better job of dealing with the pandemic and that departments’ level of contingency-planning resilience “will need to rise in future”.

MHCLG facing ‘long-term impact’

Today’s NAO report also flagged the potential for the pandemic to have long-term financial impacts for both the NHS and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

It said that although the current £372bn cost estimate of the pandemic was “a highly significant unplanned increase in public spending” in itself, the potential need for an ongoing Covid-19 vaccination programme and damage to local authority finances would not be short-term issues.

The report said the need for an annual programme of Covid-19 vaccination would have “long-term implications for NHS England and NHS Improvement’s staffing and budgets”.

It added that some local authority finance directors expected the pandemic to have a “medium-term to long-term impact” on the sector’s finances. 

“Rather than them simply returning to normal once the pandemic is over, it is likely that a programme of financial recovery will be required, with potential long-term implications for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s support for the sector,” the report said.

“These commitments may impact the longer-term sustainability of public finances.”

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