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Pandemic lessons “cannot wait for Government inquiry” with massive taxpayer exposure & “unacceptably high waste”

25 July 2021

In two reports, the Public Accounts Committee says the UK Government’s response to the pandemic has exposed the taxpayer to “significant financial risks for decades to come”, with the estimated lifetime cost of the government’s measures reaching £372 billion in May 2021.

The total value of government-backed loans has increased greatly during the crisis, with the taxpayer already on the hook for an estimated £26 billion of credit and fraud losses in the SME bounce back loan scheme.

Covid cost tracker report

Initial lessons from the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic report

The Committee “remains concerned that despite spending over £10 billion on supplies, the PPE stockpile is not fit for purpose”. Of 32 billion items of PPE ordered by the Department of Health & Social Care as of May 2021, 11 billion have been distributed, 12.6 billion are stored in the UK as central stock, and 8.4 billion on order from other parts of the world have still not arrived in the UK.

The current stockpile is costing DHSC approximately £6.7 million a week to store and potential waste levels are “unacceptably high”: with 10,000 shipping containers of PPE still to be unpacked by May this year, 2.1 billion items of PPE had already been found unsuitable for use in medical settings - equating to over £2 billion of taxpayers’ money and over five times the estimate of PPE unfit for purpose given to the Committee by DHSC in January 2021.

For the excess PPE that is suitable for medical use, the Government is yet to create any robust plans for repurposing and distributing this essential stock in a way which ensures value for money and protects staff and patients.

The NHS was already carrying about 40,000 nursing vacancies and 9,000 medical staff vacancies going into the pandemic and by last September, six months in, over a third of remaining nurses were considering leaving. With the health and social care workforces “under constant pressure” throughout the pandemic, patient waiting times continue to slip and wait lists for non-urgent treatment are growing significantly.

Government’s repeated failure to provide a full rationale for key decisions is undermining public trust and accountability for the pandemic response. Of 1,644 contracts with a value over £25,000 awarded up to the end of July 2020, 75% were not published within the 90-day target.  Achieving value for money from government expenditure during COVID-19 has been compromised by poor quality impact assessments and Accounting Officer assessments.

Lack of clarity and timeliness and the volume of government communications has hindered the public’s understanding of public health guidelines and ability to comply with them.

The Government inquiry is expected to start in spring 2022 and will take years to complete – the PAC is “clear that government cannot wait for the review before learning important lessons”. The Committee expects Government to “set out a fully costed plan for recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic” in the autumn Spending Review, alongside a comprehensive framework for managing the risks to public finances resulting from the COVID-19 response. 

Chair's comment

Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “With eye watering sums of money spent on Covid measures so far the government needs to be clear, now, how this will be managed going forward, and over what period of time.

"The ongoing risk to the taxpayer will run for 20 years on things like arts & culture recovery loans, let alone the other new risks that departments across Government must quickly learn to manage.

"As well as monitoring procurement and its effectiveness through the next few years, the PAC will be watching this spending and risk for decades to come. If coronavirus is with us for a long time, the financial hangover could leave future generations with a big headache."

Further information

Image: Unsplash