Use Spending Review to address costly Covid backlogs, chancellor urged

IfG identifies backlogs in five major public services post-pandemic
Photo: Jennifer Kramer/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The government has been urged to use the Spending Review to tackle huge backlogs in public services or risk driving up costs for the taxpayer in future.

The pandemic has created “huge” backlogs in elective care, criminal court cases, referrals to children’s social care and school learning, the Institute for Government said in a report today.

Published a week before the Spending Review, the report noted that while Rishi Sunak has allocated some money to help the NHS clear its backlogs, others are desperately in need of funding. It said some services have come into the post-pandemic recovery period in a worse financial position than they were before Covid broke out, despite the government having spent an extra £155bn to support public services this and last year.

“After accounting for money allocated to the NHS, defence and overseas aid, social care, schools, and the additional coronavirus spending, the money left for other ‘unprotected’ public services will be 2.3% lower in real terms in 2022/23, and 1.5% lower in 2023/24, than in 2020/21 – making it harder for staff to address backlogs,” it noted.

The IfG therefore urged the chancellor to consider using it to allocate funds to support other services that have been snowed under because of the pandemic.

In August, there were 5.7 million people waiting for elective operations – longer than at any point since at least 2007 – according to the Performance Tracker report.

The report assessed nine services. It found five of those – hospitals, general practice, criminal courts, schools and children’s social care – were experiencing “quantifiable backlogs” post-Covid, the report found.

As of the end of May, there were 58,000 criminal court cases waiting to be heard. Forty percent of those cases had been waiting more than six months to be heard, up from 20% at the end of December 2019.

And at the end of the 2021 spring term, primary school pupils were on average two months behind in reading and three months behind in maths.

The report also identified delays in local government. The report found local authorities had made 252,000 referrals to children’s social care between April 2020 and July 2021 – 11% fewer than the average of the same periods in the three previous years.

Its authors noted that the coronavirus crisis had prompted services to adapt rapidly, introducing technological transformations that might have otherwise taken years “almost overnight”.

“Some of these have proved to be highly effective; others have resulted in poorer service outcomes and should not be continued. Some of the new demands and problems in delivering services created by Covid are likely to last for some time,” they said.

Recruitment and retention woes eased

The report also noted that recruitment and retention improved during the pandemic, but those effects are unlikely to last.

For example, it identified a sharp rise in the number of people applying for initial teacher training in summer 2020; a drop in vacancies for adult and children’s social care workers; and a reduction in the number of prison officers leaving their jobs.

This was despite a reduction in availability of EU workers, partly because of Brexit and as some returned home during the pandemic.

It attributed the fall in the number of people leaving public sector jobs to the “poor state” of the private sector labour market during the pandemic.

“However, this positive effect is already starting to wear off in some areas – for example, the number of people applying for teaching courses has fallen in 2021,” the report said.

“The government will still need to address issues of pay and working conditions that existed before the pandemic.”

Plans for public services in ‘disarray’

IfG’ associate director Graham Atkins, the report’s lead author, said: ““The pandemic threw the government’s plans for public services into disarray and none of the services we examine have been able to operate as they did before. There are now quantifiable backlogs in hospitals, GPs, criminal courts, schools and children’s social care.

“The pandemic also prompted rapid change in the way many services were delivered and highlighted the gulf between the range and quality of data available in different services. No government can make good spending decisions without understanding how its choices affect the performance of services and impact on people’s lives.

“The government must collect more evidence on how changes adopted during the pandemic have affected service users, and departments should be given the funding needed to continue to monitor how public services perform as the pandemic eases.”

Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy which jointly produced the report, said it “paints a stark picture” that showed “many public services are effectively out of reach for millions of people across England, amid an alarming increase in the cost of maintaining services at current levels”.

“Today’s unprecedented backlogs show the immense pressure that Covid-19 has placed on public services over the past year and half, on top of the existing cost and demand pressures felt in previous years,” he said.

He called for a “comprehensive plan” to transform services based on the lessons learned from the pandemic, as well as “realistic levels of further government funding”.

“Swift and targeted action by the chancellor at the upcoming Spending Review couldn’t be more important,” he added.

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