Committee brands failure to financially plan for pandemic 'astonishing'

22 July 2020, 12:14

A woman carries a bag of food shopping past shuttered stores on a near-deserted Oxford Street
A woman carries a bag of food shopping past shuttered stores on a near-deserted Oxford Street. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The Government's failure to plan for the economic impact of a pandemic like coronavirus has been branded "astonishing" in a scathing report by financial watchdogs.

The cross-party Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the economic reaction to Covid-19 was rushed and has left whole sectors behind, adding that the lack of preparedness could have a "long-term" impact on the economy.

It said the Treasury waited until mid-March, days before the lockdown, before deciding on the economic support schemes it would put in place.

The PAC urged the Government to "learn lessons" from its response and "ensure it doesn't repeat its mistakes again in the event of a second spike in infections - or another novel disease outbreak".

The report stated: "We are astonished by the Government's failure to consider in advance how it might deal with the economic impacts of a pandemic."

The committee also warned of the impact on children, stating: "It will be a huge task to ensure lengthy school closures do not have long-term or irreversible effects on children and young people's future health and education.

"Yet, while school closures were predicted in pandemic planning, there seems to have been no plan for how schools and pupils would be supported to continue to learn."

Labour chairwoman of the committee, Meg Hillier, said: "Pandemic planning is the bread and butter of government risk planning, but we learn it was treated solely as a health issue, with no planning for the economic impacts.

"This meant that the economic strategy was of necessity rushed and reactive, initially a one-size-fits-all response that's leaving people - and whole sectors of the economy - behind.

"A competent government does not run a country on the hoof, and it will not steer us through this global health and economic crisis that way.

"Government needs to take honest stock now, learning, and rapidly changing course where necessary.

"We need reassurance that there is serious thinking behind how to manage a second spike.

"This is not some kind of competition - this is our nation's lives and livelihoods at stake."

The report also called for more transparency in Government decision-making.

It stated: "Decision-making on important issues, such as introducing the Test and Trace programme, has been slow.

"The Government's response in some areas has been poorly co-ordinated and has not adequately taken into account long-term impacts on people and communities.

"For example, the Government's 'stop-start' approach to school closures risks major harm to many children's life chances, exacerbating already existing inequalities."

The study added: "The Cabinet Office should review crisis command structures to ensure that longer-term decision making, as well as the immediate operational response, is properly informed and coordinated effectively across government.

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The PAC report was also highly critical of how the issue of personal protective equipment (PPE) was handled.

The study said: "There were fundamental flaws in the Government's central procurement and local distribution of vital goods and equipment.

"We recognise that the Government was faced with a massive challenge to procure a huge quantity of personal protective equipment (PPE) for 58,000 separate sites including hospitals and care homes. But, despite a pandemic being identified as the Government's top non-malicious risk, it failed to stock up in advance.

"The Department of Health and Social Care was not focused enough on the challenge of how to identify need in the care sector and ensure supply of PPE."

The report also called for greater involvement with businesses regarding their needs.

It stated: "The Treasury should engage with key sectors and industries, such as the aviation sector, to develop bespoke support measures aimed at helping those businesses through the ongoing effects of the pandemic."

It added: "Central government has not given local authorities the clarity or support they need over longer-term funding."