Government was unprepared for coronavirus pandemic, report finds

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According to a new report, the government was not “fully prepared” for the “wide-ranging impacts” that coronavirus (Covid-19) had on society, the economy, and essential public services. The report found that the government lacked detailed plans on shielding, job support schemes and school disruption.

Lack of preparedness

The report from the National Audit Office (NAO) looked at the government’s preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic. It also found that time and energy spent preparing for Brexit both helped and hindered planning for future crises.

The NAO said preparations for leaving the European Union enhanced some departments’ “crisis capabilities”, but they also took up significant resources. This meant the government had to pause or postpone some planning work for a potential flu pandemic.

The report said:

Some work areas of the Pandemic Flu Readiness Board and the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Programme Board, including scheduling a pandemic influenza exercise in 2019-20, were paused or postponed to free up resources for EU exit work

Read on...

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The NAO found that the emergency planning unit of the Cabinet Office allocated 56 of its 94 full-time equivalent staff to prepare for potential disruptions from a no-deal exit. This ‘limited its ability’ to plan for other crises.

The report went on to say:

This raises a challenge for the Government as to whether it has the capacity to deal with multiple emergencies or shocks

The watchdog found that, overall, the pandemic “exposed a vulnerability to whole-system emergencies”.

Although the government had plans for a pandemic, many of these were “not adequate” for the challenge at hand, it said.

Lessons not implemented

It added that there was “limited oversight and assurance” of the plans in place. And some lessons from “previous simulation exercises” – that would have helped with Covid-19 preparations – were “not fully implemented”.

For example, the report said that Exercise Winter Willow, a large-scale pandemic simulation exercise carried out in 2007, warned that business continuity plans needed to be “better coordinated” between organisations. This was “not evident” in most of the plans which the NAO reviewed.

It also said that following Exercise Cygnus, another pandemic simulation held in 2016, the government noted that “consideration should be given to the ability of staff to work from home, particularly when staff needed access to secure computer systems”.

However, when coronavirus hit, “many departmental business continuity plans did not include arrangements for extensive home working”, the watchdog said.

According to the report, the government had prioritised preparations for “two specific viral risks”. These were an influenza pandemic and an emergency high-consequence infectious disease.

The latter typically has a high death rate among those who contract it, or has the ability to spread rapidly, with limited treatment options – like Ebola and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

The NAO said that this meant the government did not develop a plan specific to a disease with characteristics like coronavirus, which has an overall lower death rate than Ebola or MERS and widespread asymptomatic community transmission.

The watchdog said that, according to the Cabinet Office, scientists considered such a disease “less likely” to occur.

Absence of detailed plans

The report said the government was able to use some mitigations it had in place when coronavirus hit – for example, the personal protective equipment (PPE) stockpile.

However, it was “not fully prepared” for the “wide-ranging impacts” that the disease had on society, the economy, and essential public services. And it lacked detailed plans on shielding, job support schemes and school disruption.

This was despite the fact that the government’s 2019 National Security Risk Assessment recognised that a flu-like pandemic could have:

extensive non-health impacts, including on communications, education, energy supplies, finance, food supplies and transport services

Dr Mary Bousted, joint-general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said that “successive governments’ failures to plan properly for an expected pandemic” had “obviously contributed to the Covid crisis”.

She added:

The bigger problem, however, has been the litany of failings on the part of this Government once the pandemic struck.

This started with the failure to lock down quickly enough and continued through the premature lifting of restrictions to the current situation where simple measures such as face coverings in secondary schools and other measures to control the spread of the virus from schools into the community are still being resisted.

Recommendations

The report went on to make a number of specific recommendations for the Cabinet Office on risk management and preparedness.

These include:

  • Establishing who is in charge of whole-system risks.
  • Helping departments to take stock of how funding is prioritised and managed.
  • Working with departments to ensure plans are “comprehensive, holistic and integrated”.
  • Strengthening oversight of emergency planning.
  • And ensuring lessons from simulation exercises are put to use.

A government spokesperson claimed in a statement that “preparations for flu… prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed”. That’s despite widespread reports of the NHS being overwhelmed during the first wave of the pandemic as well as more recently.

The spokesperson added:

We have always said there are lessons to be learned 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 [and] vaccinated tens of millions of people

‘They failed the public’

Fleur Anderson, Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister, said the report showed that:

Conservative ministers failed to prepare and they failed the public.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, 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.

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