The government was not prepared for the wide-ranging impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the National Audit Office has said.
When Covid hit, the government lacked detailed plans on shielding, employment support schemes and managing the disruption to schooling, the watchdog said in a report today.
Departments’ pandemic planning did set out plans to manage some aspects of the crisis and ensure services continued running – but they did not include all the responses required to maintain operations, the NAO said.
Its report noted that the government had prioritised preparedness for a flu pandemic, and for an “emerging high-consequence infectious disease” such as Ebola, which has few or no treatment options.
It did not develop a specific plan for a disease like Covid-19, which has an overall lower mortality rate and widespread asymptomatic community transmission.
The government has been criticised for relying on a blueprint for handling a mass influenza outbreak to shape its early response to Covid-19.
The UK’s 2011 pandemic preparedness strategy said it would be "a waste of public health resources and capacity" to attempt to stamp out flu in a pandemic as it would spread too quickly.
Last year, former chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies said the government and health system “didn't practise how to stop a coronavirus spreading because we were told by Public Health England that the next big one would be influenza, and they didn't believe it could be stopped”.
She expressed “regrets” that she had not pushed for coronaviruses to be included in the 2016 Cygnus exercise modelling the response to a pandemic.
The NAO report said some preparations that government had put in place did prove useful for the Covid-19 response, including a stockpile of personal protective equipment.
But it said the government had failed to heed warnings made before the pandemic that its approach to risk assessment needed to improve. In particular, government was told it needed more thorough analysis of high-uncertainty risks, risks that may materialise in more than two years, and the impact of multiple risks happening at once.
“Although the government had plans for an influenza pandemic, it did not have detailed plans for many non-health consequences and some health consequences of a pandemic like Covid-19,” the report said.
“There were lessons from previous simulation exercises that were not fully implemented and would have helped prepare for a pandemic like Covid-19. There was limited oversight and assurance of plans in place, and many pre-pandemic plans were not adequate. In addition, there is variation in capacity, capability and maturity of risk management across government departments.”
The report urged government to strengthen its preparations for “system-wide emergencies”. This includes establishing who in the Cabinet Office is responsible for managing these risks and strengthening oversight and assurance arrangements for preparations.
“It should also work with other government departments to ensure that their risk management, business continuity and emergency planning are more comprehensive, holistic and integrated. Lessons learned from simulation exercises should also be promptly disseminated and implemented across government,” the report added.
Today’s release comes after an initial lessons-learned report in May, which said the crisis had highlighted the need for government to adopt a more systematic approach to ensuring the resilience of key services.
NAO head Gareth Davies said: “This pandemic has exposed the UK’s vulnerability to whole-system emergencies, where the emergency is so broad that it engages all levels of government and society. Although government had plans for a flu pandemic, it was not prepared for a pandemic like Covid-19 and did not learn important lessons from the simulation exercises it carried out.
“For whole-system risks, government needs to define the amount and type of risk that it is willing to take to make informed decisions and prepare appropriately.”
Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: "We have always said there are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic and have committed to a full public inquiry in spring.
"We prepare for a range of scenarios and while there were extensive arrangements in place, this is an unprecedented pandemic that has challenged health systems around the world.
"Thanks to our collective national effort and our preparations for flu, we have saved lives, vaccinated tens of millions of people and prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed."