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National Audit Office says UK Government Was Not Prepared for Pandemic

According to a new assessment, the UK government was not "completely prepared" for Covid-19's "wide-ranging implications" on society, the economy, and critical public services, as it lacked clear preparations on shielding, job support initiatives, and school disruption.

According to the National Audit Office’s wide-ranging investigation of the pandemic, the government lacked a coherent plan on shielding, job support initiatives, and disruption to schools. Some lessons from "prior simulation exercises" – which might have aided Covid-19 preparations – were "not effectively utilised."

Not Enough Pandemic Planning

The government prioritised preparations for "two distinct viral hazards" — an influenza pandemic and an emergency high-consequence infectious disease like Ebola or MERS, according to the study, the latter usually having a high death rate among people who contract it, and the propensity to spread quickly with limited treatment options.

The report also discovered that time and attention spent on Brexit preparations impeded future crisis planning. While preparations for leaving the European Union increased certain ministries' "crisis skills," they also consumed a lot of resources, causing the government to put some flu preparedness on hold. A scheduled pandemic response exercise in 2019 was postponed to free up 56 out of 94 staff for Brexit work.

“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.

It went on to say that although the government had made preparations for a pandemic, many of them were "inadequate" for the task at hand. The plans in place had "little control and assurance," and some lessons from "prior simulation exercises" – which would have aided Covid-19 preparations – were "not completely utilised." The report referenced Exercise Winter Willow, a large-scale pandemic simulation exercise held in 2007, which advised that business continuity plans needed to be "better integrated" between organisations, something "not visible" in the majority of plans examined by the NAO.

It also stated that "attention should be given to the ability of staff to operate from home, particularly when staff needed access to sensitive computer systems," as a result of Exercise Cygnus, another pandemic simulation, staged in 2016.

Primary care reacted quickly — with lockdown and social distancing in effect, long-running plans for video consultations were fast-tracked into action in March 2020. NHS England outlined practical steps general practice should take to establish a ‘total triage’ model using online and telephone triage first, managing patients remotely unless face-to-face care was clinically required. This has been regarded as effective, however the current media backlash has had an effect on the safety, reputation and morale of general practice staff.

The government was able to use several mitigations it had in place when Covid-19 hit, according to the report, such as the PPE stockpile. However, it was "not adequately prepared" for the disease's "wide-ranging repercussions" on society, the economy, and critical public services, according to the watchdog, because it lacked clear plans on shielding, work support systems, and school disruption.

Poor Risk Management

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”, saying that they “lowered the bar” for acceptable health and social impacts.

It went on to propose a number of specific risk management and preparedness suggestions for the Cabinet Office, including;

  • named responsible persons for whole-system risks,
  • assisting departments in taking stock of how funding is prioritised and managed,
  • collaborating with departments to ensure plans are "comprehensive, holistic, and integrated,"
  • strengthening emergency planning oversight, and
  • ensuring lessons learned from simulation exercises are implemented.

"This epidemic has shown the UK's vulnerability to whole-system emergencies, where the disaster is so broad that it engages all levels of government and society," said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO. “Despite having measures in place for a flu pandemic, the government was unprepared for a pandemic like Covid-19 and failed to learn crucial lessons from simulation exercises.

“To make educated judgments and prepare effectively for whole-system risks, the government must identify the amount and type of risk it is willing to assume."

Will Lessons Be Learned?

The UK government, like many other governments throughout the world, was unprepared for a pandemic like COVID-19, and needs to draw lessons from its response to what happened from a healthcare and societal point of view. Despite having measures in place for an influenza pandemic, the report revealed the government’s whole-system vulnerability, concluding that the government:

  • Did not have thorough strategies for the many health and non-health repercussions of a pandemic like COVID-19,
  • Lessons from past simulation exercises that would have helped prepare for a pandemic like COVID-19 were not properly adopted,
  • There was a lack of control and assurance of the plans in place, and many of the pre-pandemic strategies were insufficient,
  • Risk management capacity, aptitude, and maturity differ across government departments.

It identified a need for the government to improve its end-to-end risk management approach to ensure that all serious risks are addressed; “The pandemic has also shown the need to develop national resilience in order to prepare for future catastrophes of this magnitude, as well as the problems that the government faces in balancing the need to prepare for future disasters with day-to-day issues and present events.”

Another study released in October 2021 by the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee said that the late lockdown at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 was "one of the most serious public health disasters the United Kingdom has ever seen." More than 140,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.K. since the start of the pandemic, according to U.K. government figures.

For more details, you can read the National Audit Office’s full report here.

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