The UK government has mobilised a wide-ranging response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with initiatives worth over £120 billion so far to support the health and social care sector, businesses and individuals through the crisis. We give the UK Government credit for moving fast to deliver this. However, we are astonished to have heard in evidence that, despite a pandemic having been 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. HM Treasury (the Treasury) waited until mid-March before designing the economic support schemes it would put in place, creating initial uncertainty for many businesses and individuals.
We would have expected the Cabinet Office and the Treasury to have a better grip of the overall government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Government co-ordination and decision making is having major and long-lasting impacts on people’s lives. For example, there will need to be concerted efforts to ensure that the lengthy school closures do not have long-term or irreversible effects on children and young people’s future health and education. School closures were predicted in pandemic planning, yet there seems to have been no plan or support for how schools and pupils would be supported to continue to learn.
Government emphasised that it never ran out of central PPE supplies. However, it acknowledged that there were daily examples of local shortages. Procurement and delivery of PPE is vital in a pandemic and we will consider this in a separate report.
Central government has not given local authorities the clarity or support they need over long-term funding. As we have previously seen with Brexit, the government’s initial approach to supporting businesses in order to speed up the response has been one-size-fits-all, leaving sectors of the economy without the bespoke support they need. We are concerned that the government should learn the lessons from its cross-government response to the COVID-19 pandemic and undertake the necessary preparatory work to ensure it doesn’t make similar mistakes again in the event of a second spike in infections or novel pandemic outbreak. Overall there has been unclear planning and advice for lifting lockdown in a number of sectors. We recognise that decisions are not easy and that the trajectory of the pandemic within the population is not in the Government’s control, but there are many lessons from this first phase of the pandemic that the Government must learn. Government decisions have an impact on how the spread of infection is controlled.
Published: 23 July 2020