UK government was not adequately prepared for Covid, watchdog finds

With time and energy lost on Brexit negotiations, the UK was not fully prepared for the pandemic, an independent watchdog has unveiled.

UK was not fully prepared for the Covid pandemic

The National Audit Office (NAU), the independent body that scrutinises public spending for Parliament, has found that ministers were “not fully prepared” for the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The NAO conducted a comprehensive report evaluating how prepared the government was for a health crisis like coronavirus.

It unveils that the Johnson administration was not ready for the colossal impact the health crisis had on society, the economy and essential public services. According to the NAO, the government was devoid of a detailed plan on the likes of job support schemes, school disruption and shielding.

Time lost on preparing for Britain’s exit from the EU

Instead, time and energy had been dedicated to Brexit preparations. According to the watchdog, although the UK’s exit from the EU may have enhanced some government department’s “crisis capabilities”, it took up significant resources. As such, the government either paused or postponed preparation 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,” said the report.

In the wake of the damning report for the government, campaign groups are calling on ministers to prove they have learned their lessons from the Covid response.

One such group in Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice. The group launched a campaign calling for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.

In July 2020, Boris Johnson promised an “independent inquiry” would be made at the appropriate time. Such inquiry has been loosely promised for the first half of 2022, but the exact dates, aims and remits, have yet to be confirmed.

Calls for a public inquiry into government’s handling of Covid

Now, in response to the NAO’s report, calls for a public inquiry have moved up a gear, with campaign groups asserting the importance for failings not to be repeated.  

As Lobby Akinnola, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group said: “This report by the National Audit Office confirms what the whole country has long known, that the government was unprepared for the pandemic and that our loved ones might be here today if they had been. What’s most important now is that the government is able to learn lessons from the inquiry to ensure that we are never in this position again.

“For families like us, knowing that lessons were learnt from the tragedy and suffering we’ve endured to protect others in the future, is critical to being able to move forward with our lives.”

The NAO says its findings raises a challenge for the government as to whether it “has the capacity to deal with multiple emergencies or shocks” and that the health crisis “exposed a vulnerability to whole-system emergencies.”

Exercise Cygnus

The research points to Exercise Cygnus, a cross-government exercise to test the UK’s response to a serious influenza pandemic. The three-day simulation exercise was conducted by NHS England in October 2016 to estimate the impact of a hypothetical H2N2 flu pandemic on the UK.

Following the exercise, the government had stated that “consideration should be given to the ability of staff to work from home, particularly when staff needed access to secure computer systems.”

Though as the NAU said, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, “many departmental business continuity plans did not include arrangements for extensive home working.”

Government contingency planning for a pandemic was, according to the watchdog, concentrated on the outbreak of an influenza pandemic, and consequently the government was unprepared for the outbreak of a disease with characteristics like Covid-19.

Litany of failings once the pandemic struck

Reacting to the report, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union said that successive government’s inadequate planning for an unexpected pandemic has “obviously contributed to the Covid crisis.”

“The bigger problem, however, has been the litany of failings on the part of this government once the pandemic struck,” said Dr Bousted.

Confirming the government’s Covid response failings was a Commons inquiry launched in October, by two former Conservative ministers. The 151-page “Coronavirus: lessons learned to date” report showed that Britain’s early handling of the pandemic, and belief in ‘herd immunity” is “one of the UK’s worse ever public health failures.”

Its “fatalistic” approach meant that Britain fared “significantly worse” than other countries.

Despite Britain being one of the first nations to develop a test for Covid in January 2020, it “squandered” its lead and “converted it into one of permanent crisis,” the inquiry found, concluding that the crisis exposed:

“Major deficiencies in the machinery of government.”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to Left Foot Forward.

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