Failure to plan for pandemic “astonishing”
23 July 2020
The Public Accounts Committee was “astonished” to learn that, despite the threat of a pandemic being one of the government's top risks for years, it failed to consider specifically in advance how it might deal with the economic impacts of a national disease outbreak.
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The Committee heard in evidence that HM Treasury waited until mid-March - days before the lockdown that closed schools and businesses across the country for months - before designing the economic support schemes it would put in place.
The nature of Government co-ordination and decision making in the pandemic is having major and long-lasting impacts on people's lives. 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.
Central government has not given local authorities, on the front line of the response for both the SME and care sectors, the clarity or support they need, and overall there has been unclear planning and advice for lifting lockdown in a number of sectors.
The Committee reiterates its urgent call for Government to learn the lessons from its response to the COVID-19 pandemic so far, and do the work now to ensure it doesn't repeat its mistakes again in the event of a second spike in infections - or another novel disease outbreak. The Committee expects a report back from the Cabinet Office, by September 1st, on Government's progress on a “second wave ready” plan.
Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee, 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.”