UK government unprepared for pandemic, report finds

Government lacked detailed plans for shielding, employment support schemes and managing the disruption to schooling, according to a new NAO report

22nd November 2021 about a 3 minute read
"This pandemic has exposed a vulnerability to whole-system emergencies – that is, emergencies that are so broad that they engage the entire system." National Audit Office report on the Covid-19 pandemic

The UK government was not properly prepared for a pandemic like Covid-19, a new report has found.

The report from the National Audit Office (NAO), which scrutinises government spending, says that the government had prioritised preparations for a flu pandemic or a highly infectious disease such as Ebola over diseases with characteristics similar to Covid-19.

An assessment in 2019 of the possible impact of a pandemic “recognised that an influenza-type pandemic could have extensive non-health impacts, including on communications, education, energy supplies, finance, food supplies and transport services,” the report says.

However, it adds, the government “lacked detailed plans for several aspects of its response to COVID-19, including shielding, employment support schemes and managing the disruption to schooling.”

The Cabinet Office had allocated 56 of its 94 full-time emergency planning staff members to prepare for any potential disruption arising from a no-deal Brexit which, the report says, hampered its ability to plan for other crises.

The report also finds that before the pandemic happened, the government “did not explicitly agree what level of risk it was willing to accept for an event like COVID-19.” After the pandemic began, it “lowered the threshold for the health and societal impacts of the pandemic that it deemed acceptable.”

Covid-19 exposed a ‘vulnerability to whole-system emergencies’

Previous pandemic simulations had shown that the UK was unprepared for the pandemic, the report says, but the government failed to act on these warnings. As an example, it cites Exercise Winter Willow, a large-scale pandemic simulation exercise carried out in 2007, which “warned that organisations needed to ensure that their business continuity plans were better coordinated with those of their partner organisations.” This “was not evident in most plans we reviewed”, the report says.

The report does acknowledge, however, that some recommendations resulting from pandemic simulations had been implemented, such as the draft Pandemic Influenza Bill following Exercise Cygnus in 2016, which became the basis for the Coronavirus Act.

The Covid-19 pandemic, the report concludes, “has exposed a vulnerability to whole-system emergencies – that is, emergencies that are so broad that they engage the entire system.” Although there were plans in place for a flu pandemic, the government “did not have detailed plans for many non-health consequences and some health consequences of a pandemic like COVID-19.”

Among its recommendations, the report states that the pandemic “highlighted the need to strengthen the government’s end-to-end risk management process to ensure that it addresses all significant risks, including interdependent and systemic risks.” It says that this would “require collaboration on risk identification and management not only across government departments and local authorities, but also with the private sector and internationally.”

The pandemic also “highlighted the need to strengthen national resilience to prepare for any future events of this scale, and the challenges the government faces in balancing the need to prepare for future events while dealing with day-to-day issue,” the report says.