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Spending watchdog says Government was under-prepared for pandemic with no ‘playbook’ for key events

The Government was under-prepared for the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic and lacked a ‘playbook’ for dealing with key events that unfolded including mass school closures, a new report reveals today.

The National Audit Office criticised a lack of readiness for the emergence of Covid, despite frequent warnings in recent years that such a medical crisis could emerge.

In a report today it said that ‘like many countries, the UK was not as prepared for the pandemic as it could have been, and government lacked detailed contingency plans to manage the unfolding situation.

However, it also praised ministers and civil servants  for the speed at which they worked to overcome challenges as they emerged – while warning that long-term lessons must be learned.

The report said: ‘No playbook can cover all the specific circumstances of every potential crisis. Nevertheless, more detailed planning for the key impacts of a pandemic and of other high-impact low-likelihood events can improve government’s ability to respond to future emergencies. 

‘It may also bring other benefits, such as creating new relationships and improving understanding between organisations. 

In his forward to the report, Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said the pandemic had ‘stress-tested the government’s ability to deal with unforeseen events and potential shocks’. 

‘Government has often acted at unprecedented speed to respond to a virus which has caused dramatic disruption to people’s lives, public service provision and society as a whole,’ he said. 

It comes as Boris Johnson said he intends to go ahead with his roadmap for lifting England’s lockdown despite fears over the new Covid variant

People queuing for Covid vaccinations at the ESSA academy in Bolton as the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant could lead to the return of local lockdowns

People queuing for Covid vaccinations at the ESSA academy in Bolton as the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant could lead to the return of local lockdowns

The NAO report outlined how, by the end of March 2021, the estimated lifetime cost of measures announced as part of the government's Covid response was £372billion

The NAO report outlined how, by the end of March 2021, the estimated lifetime cost of measures announced as part of the government’s Covid response was £372billion

‘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. 

‘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.’ 

The NAO report found that pre-existing pandemic contingency measures did not include detailed plans for ‘identifying and supporting a large population advised to shield’ or ‘managing mass disruption to schooling on the scale caused by Covid-19’, it says. 

It also claims that, due to the speed of the response to the crisis, the government did not ‘always fully consider the implications of design decisions on different groups of individuals’. 

It adds: ‘In future, there will be opportunities for government to reflect on how its actions may have affected inequalities, and what ongoing assistance may need to be provided to the front-line and other key workers, on whom the pandemic placed significant physical, mental and emotional demands.’ 

It came despite the revelation in April last year that a Government pandemic response drill four years previously found that the UK was woefully under-prepared to fight a future outbreak.

The shortcomings exposed by Exercise Cygnus in 2016 included a lack of capacity in hospital and social care settings which risked becoming overwhelmed.

Checking Britain had a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment and ventilators, as well as assessing testing capacity, were reportedly both glaring omissions from the three-day simulation.

Whitehall departments, the NHS, health bodies and councils were all included in the nationwide mock test of how the UK would cope with a deadly disease.

A subsequent report made 22 recommendations and concluded ‘the UK’s capability to respond to a worst case pandemic influenza should be critically reviewed’.

Labour will look to capitalise on the findings in the final debate on the Queen’s Speech, with the opposition party tabling a humble address calling on the Government to publish its internal review of the handling of the pandemic to ensure lessons can be implemented in the race against the Indian variant.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth is preparing to tell MPs: ‘Boris Johnson promised us an irreversible roadmap to normality.

‘With the spread of the B1617.2 variant threatening to hold us back, we need urgent action from ministers to contain this variant.’

Positive test figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute – which cover only lab-analysed cases in the two weeks between April 25 and May 8 – reveal the mutant Indian strain made up 50 per cent or more of all samples in 23 parts of the country by last week. Bolton and Blackburn in the North West remain the worst-hit areas with almost 600 cases between them and the variant making up 81 per cent of infections

Positive test figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute – which cover only lab-analysed cases in the two weeks between April 25 and May 8 – reveal the mutant Indian strain made up 50 per cent or more of all samples in 23 parts of the country by last week. Bolton and Blackburn in the North West remain the worst-hit areas with almost 600 cases between them and the variant making up 81 per cent of infections

While the Indian variant is spreading rapidly in pockets of the country, 60 per cent of local authorities in England have yet to record a case (shown in grey). But it is likely the variant has spread even further than the map suggests because the data is 10 days out of date. Experts have said they expect it to overtake the Kent strain and become dominant in the coming weeks and months

While the Indian variant is spreading rapidly in pockets of the country, 60 per cent of local authorities in England have yet to record a case (shown in grey). But it is likely the variant has spread even further than the map suggests because the data is 10 days out of date. Experts have said they expect it to overtake the Kent strain and become dominant in the coming weeks and months

A Warwick University model of a more infectious variant after lockdown is completely lifted on June 21 suggests that any more than a 30 per cent increase in transmissibility compared to the Kent variant could lead to an August peak of daily hospital admissions that is higher than either the first or second wave. In a worst-case scenario with a variant 50 per cent more transmissible, hospital admissions could surge to 10,000 per day or even double that  (Thick lines indicate the central estimate while the thin lines are possible upper limits known as confidence intervals)

The NAO report also outlined the effects of underfunding in areas such as councils, healthcare and social care, revealing that as many as 94 per cent of chief finance officers in single tier and county councils expect to make cuts in service budgets in 2021-22. 

It comes as Boris Johnson said he intends to go ahead with his roadmap for lifting England’s lockdown despite fears over the new Covid variant, playing down fears that the June 21 ‘freedom day’ could be ditched because of the strain.

The Indian Covid variant has already overtaken the Kent strain in 23 English local authorities and has spread to 40 per cent of the country. 

Ministers refused to rule out bringing back local tiered restrictions in a bid to control the highly transmissible Indian variant – although the Prime Minister said there was no ‘conclusive’ evidence to deviate from the road map out of lockdown following rising case numbers of the South Asian mutation in some parts of the country.

North of the border, Nicola Sturgeon was re-elected as the First Minister of Scotland by a majority of MSPs at Holyrood on Tuesday, having vowed that recovery from the coronavirus pandemic was her ‘driving priority’.

The SNP leader said, although there was a ‘clear mandate’ for another Scottish independence referendum following this month’s election results, she would look to make progress on a new border poll ‘only when the crisis of Covid has passed’.

As of early December 2020, three-quarters of local authorities had a reported funding gap in 2020-21 between forecast pressures and estimated government support. As many as 94% of chief finance officers from single tier and county councils surveyed expected to make cuts in service budgets in 2021-22

As of early December 2020, three-quarters of local authorities had a reported funding gap in 2020-21 between forecast pressures and estimated government support. As many as 94% of chief finance officers from single tier and county councils surveyed expected to make cuts in service budgets in 2021-22

The NAO report said that in the NHS, staff in non-patient-facing roles were asked to support clinical practice, and by the end of April 2020, an extra 18,200 staff had deployed in clinical and support roles , including 10,100 students and 8,050 returning retired and former healthcare professionals

The NAO report said that in the NHS, staff in non-patient-facing roles were asked to support clinical practice, and by the end of April 2020, an extra 18,200 staff had deployed in clinical and support roles , including 10,100 students and 8,050 returning retired and former healthcare professionals

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s leaders are due to decide this week whether the next stage of easing can go ahead as planned on Monday.

The country reached the milestone of having given more than one million people at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday.     

The NAO report outlined how, by the end of March 2021, the estimated lifetime cost of measures announced as part of the government’s Covid response was £372billion. 

The largest programmes, by estimated lifetime cost, are the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (£62 billion), NHS Test and Trace (£38 billion) and self-employment income support (£27 billion), the report says. 

It adds that local authorities’ finances have been ‘scarred by the pandemic and will not bounce back quickly once the pandemic ends’. 

As of early December 2020, three-quarters of local authorities had a reported funding gap in 2020-21 between forecast pressures and estimated government support.

As many as 94 per cent of chief finance officers from single tier and county councils surveyed expected to make cuts in service budgets in 2021-22. 

The NAO report said that in the NHS, staff in non-patient-facing roles were asked to support clinical practice, and by the end of April 2020, an extra 18,200 staff had deployed in clinical and support roles, including 10,100 students and 8,050 returning retired and former healthcare professionals. 

It adds: ‘Planned care in the NHS was reduced to provide capacity for Covid-19 patients and non-Covid-19 demand for services was lower than usual levels. 

‘It is not yet known to what extent this will cause more patients to present, potentially with more acute problems, in future.’

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