A new report from the National Audit Office [NAO] has concluded that the UK government was insufficiently prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic and lacked thorough advance planning for associated measures such as employment protection schemes, mitigating disruption to education and being ready for vulnerable individuals having to shield.
The report said that the government had to heed the lessons from the pandemic and had missed previous opportunities to prepare better, after failing to respond accordingly to warnings coming from pandemic simulation exercises such as Exercise Cygnus, conducted in 2016.
One of Cygnus’ conclusions was that the government should consider “the ability of staff to work from home”, but by the start of the Covid pandemic in early 2020, the NAO report found that “many departmental business continuity plans not include arrangements for extensive home working”.
The report also uncovered that ministers had focused their pandemic safeguards on the flu virus and infectious tropical diseases such as Ebola, instead of respiratory conditions such as Covid-19, which can be spread by infected individuals who are not displaying obvious symptoms.
While the report found that the government had stockpiled some personal protective equipment in preparation for a pandemic, it concluded that Whitehall did not properly plan for the “wide-ranging impacts” that viruses such as Covid could have on the economy and society at large.
It added that Covid had “exposed a vulnerability to whole-system emergencies” and there was “limited oversight and assurance” of the plans in place.
Indeed, the government’s furlough scheme was only announced on March 20, the same day that cafes, pubs and restaurants were ordered to close and just three days before the first national lockdown was announced.
It was only on March 21 that the government began issuing letters to the clinically vulnerable and advising they remain at home and shield, by which point national cases were already in the thousands.
As the pandemic unfolded while negotiations over a post-Brexit trade deal were still underway, the NAO report also revealed that the Cabinet Office had deployed 56 of its 94 full-time emergency planning staff workforce toward no-deal Brexit preparations, which hampered its ability to plan and respond to another crisis such as Covid.
The government has responded by saying that the pandemic was an unprecedented occurrence and that struggles had not been exclusive to the UK, with the outbreak having stretched governments and healthcare systems across the globe.
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.”
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