The Government was not “fully prepared” for the “wide-ranging impacts” that Covid-19 had on society, the economy, and essential public services – lacking detailed plans on shielding, job support schemes and school disruption, a new report has found.
And some lessons from “previous simulation exercises” – that would have helped with Covid-19 preparations – were “not fully implemented”, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
The report, which looked at the Government’s preparedness for the Covid-19 pandemic, also found that time and energy spent preparing for Brexit both helped and hindered planning for future crises.
The watchdog said preparations for leaving the European Union enhanced some departments’ “crisis capabilities”, but also took up significant resources, meaning the Government had to pause or postpone some planning work for a potential flu pandemic.
“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,” the report said.
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, “limiting its ability” to plan for other crises.
“This raises a challenge for the Government as to whether it has the capacity to deal with multiple emergencies or shocks,” the report said.
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.
It added that there was “limited oversight and assurance” of the plans in place, and that 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 – and this was “not evident” in most of the plans reviewed by the NAO.
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 Covid-19 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” – 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 Covid-19 – which has an overall lower death rate than Ebola or MERS, and widespread asymptomatic community transmission.
It said that, according to the Cabinet Office, scientists considered such a disease “less likely” to occur.
The report said the Government was able to use some mitigations it had in place when Covid-19 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 – lacking detailed plans on shielding, job support schemes and school disruption, the watchdog said.
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.”
The report also said that, prior to the pandemic, the Government “did not explicitly agree what level of risk it was willing to accept for an event like Covid-19”.
The NAO said it was told by the Cabinet Office that, as the crisis started, the Government’s “risk appetite changed”, and it “lowered the threshold for the health and societal impacts of the pandemic that it deemed acceptable”.
It concluded that Covid-19 had highlighted the need to strengthen both the Government’s risk management process and “national resilience” to prepare for any similar events in future.
The watchdog said the Government had already started to consider addressing many of the issues raised – for example, through its National Resilience Strategy.
It 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.
The NAO also said the Cabinet Office and Treasury should help departments to “reduce variation in capacity, capability and maturity of risk management, emergency planning and business continuity”.
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.”
Fleur Anderson, Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, said the report showed that “Conservative ministers failed to prepare and they failed the public.
“A Labour government will learn the lessons to create a more resilient Britain and ensure that never again is our country left unprepared and dithering when crisis hits,” she said.
A Government spokesperson said: “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, vaccinated tens of millions of people and prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed.”
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