Whole of Government Response to COVID-19 Contents

1The government’s overall response

1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from HM Treasury (the Treasury), the Cabinet Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (the Department) and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (the Ministry).1

2.Significant outbreaks of disease are among the greatest risks faced by any society, threatening lives and causing significant disruption to public services and the economy. The scale and nature of the current COVID-19 pandemic and government’s response is unprecedented in recent history. The first reported case of coronavirus was confirmed by the Chief Medical Officer in England on 31 January 2020. The government launched its action plan in response to the pandemic on 3 March 2020. It set out its four-stage strategy: Contain; Delay; Research; and Mitigate.2

3.The UK government implemented an extensive range of measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The costs of the government’s response are large and uncertain and will depend on the continuing health and economic impacts of the pandemic. At the time we took evidence for this inquiry, it was on the basis of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report in May 2020. That report set out that, between 31 January and 4 May 2020, the government made more than 500 announcements on its response to the pandemic, and had announced £124.3 billion of government programmes, initiatives and spending commitments. That £124.3 billion included: £6.6 billion for health and social care measures; £82.2 billion for financial support to businesses, including support for retaining jobs, loans and grants; £19.5 billion for individuals, including benefits and sick pay and support for vulnerable people; and £15.8 billion for other public services and the wider emergency response, including funding for local government services, education and children’s services.3

4.A wide range of organisations are involved in delivering the UK government’s response to COVID-19, including government departments, local authorities, other public sector organisations, private sector organisations and charities.4 In May 2020 the governance and decision-making structures for the UK government’s response to COVID-19 comprised four ministerial implementation committees representing health, international, economic and wider public services, led by relevant ministers and reporting into the COVID-19 group chaired by the Prime Minister or the First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, in Prime Minister’s absence due to his illness.5 At the end of May this structure was revised to a COVID-19 Operations Committee and COVID-19 Strategy Committee.6

Preparedness for the pandemic

5.The Cabinet Office told us that a pandemic had been identified as the single top non-malicious risk facing the government for a number of years. It said that there had been a series of tests and exercises in preparation for a pandemic, including an exercise known as Exercise Cygnus in 2016, which looked at preparation for an influenza-type pandemic. The Cabinet Office emphasised that the characteristics of the current pandemic have made it very difficult to counter and control, especially how infectious it is, the number of countries affected at one time, and the high rate of asymptomatic infections.7 The Cabinet Office said it believed it was “a bit early” to say for sure whether the government was adequately prepared to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, and acknowledged that “there will be lessons”. It told us that the preparations made for draft pandemic legislation and contingency plans for dealing with the deceased at local level had both proved “extremely effective”.8

6.The Cabinet Office told us that Exercise Cygnus was conducted by it and the Department of Health and Social Care.9 There was no input from the Treasury or the Department (then the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) into the planning for Exercise Cygnus.10 The Cabinet Office and the Treasury were not aware of any direct action taken to prepare for any potential economic impacts from a pandemic, and the then Permanent Secretary of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was not aware at the time of Exercise Cygnus having taken place, or of any work undertaken by his Department as a result of the exercise.11 The Cabinet Office told us that, instead, the Treasury and the Department had used the experience and lessons learned from the 2008 financial crisis and no deal preparation for EU Exit in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. It told us that its response also drew upon coordinated response plans across the financial sector for risks that could cause significant economic disruption.12

7.The Treasury acknowledged that because there were no support schemes for businesses and individuals “on the shelf”, there was a delay in implementing the schemes as they needed to be designed from scratch.13 In terms of the rapidness of the economic response, the Treasury told us that it set aside money at the Budget on 11 March 2020 to deal with the effects of the virus, but it was not until the week after the Budget that it became clear that the effort to contain the virus would involve imposing very significant restrictions on the economy and what kinds of schemes would be needed.14 Support for self-employed people is one area where the response has been criticised for being too slow and inadequate for some of those affected. The Treasury acknowledged that one of the challenges it faced in designing the schemes was having sufficient, reliable information on who the recipients should be. This was particularly the case for self-employed people where the information comes with a lag, and therefore it took longer to design a scheme that would be up and running quickly.15

Lessons learned

8.Learning the lessons from the current pandemic is important for dealing with future pandemics, but also to prepare for a potential second peak of COVID-19 infections. For example, it is not clear whether lessons have been learned on the need to plan now for dealing with economic impacts if COVID-19 cases rise again. When asked whether the Job Retention Scheme would be extended beyond October 2020, the Treasury was clear that it had no plans to do so.16 We also asked the Department repeatedly what lessons it had identified for the next stage of the pandemic to improve delivery of business support, particularly in response to calls for more bespoke support, but it was unable to provide a satisfactory answer.17

9.Transparency about decisions taken and lessons learned from the pandemic is critical to ensuring public confidence in the government’s response. However, it is not clear that the government has fully recognised the need for open and transparent decision making, as illustrated, for example, by the delays in publishing ministerial directions on COVID-19-related spending. Ministerial directions are requested in situations where the Accounting Officer of a department has serious concerns about whether a decision or course of action would be proper, regular, value for money or feasible.18 As at 15 June 2020 there had been 12 ministerial directions on the government’s responses to COVID-19, arising from the substantial and urgent additional spending that departments have had to make.19 Eight of the directions related to the value for money of the Department’s business support measures, while others were sought and granted to support urgent spending that would result in exceeding Departmental Expenditure Limits authorised by Parliament for 2019–20.20

10.Ministerial directions are expected to be published as soon as possible after they are issued, as the Treasury guidance makes clear.21 However, there was a delay of several weeks before some of the COVID-19-related directions were published, and one is still not public. The Department explained that it had not published six of its eight ministerial directions more quickly because it was concerned about publishing them before the schemes concerned were launched and delivered.22 It acknowledged that it had “hoped” to publish them more promptly than it did, and that the delays were due to it having to consider, for each scheme, whether publishing the relevant direction would undermine scheme implementation.23 The Treasury has subsequently asked the Treasury Officer of Accounts to write to Accounting Officers to remind them of the importance of publishing a ministerial direction as soon as possible after it is issued, unless there is a broader public interest in keeping it confidential.24

Coordination and decision making

11.The Cabinet Office set out the governance and decision-making structures for the UK government’s response to COVID-19. These comprised four ministerial implementation committees representing health, international, economic and wider public services, led by relevant ministers and reporting into the COVID-19 group chaired by the Prime Minister. Departments also have their own reporting structures and governance.25 The Cabinet Office explained that it had adapted its governance structures for each phase of the crisis so far, including by creating the ministerial implementation committees and moving at the end of May to a new “simplified, rationalised structure”, comprising an operations committee and a strategy committee. However, we have concerns about whether government has made full use of expertise across government in developing its decision and coordination structures—for example, how far the Cabinet Office had involved Army and Ministry of Defence strategists with experience in this area.26 The Cabinet Office responded that the Army has been “highly involved” in the planning of operations, working at the centre of government and in procurement and logistics, as well as at a local level with local resilience forums. Nonetheless, there do seem to be lessons that could still be learned from the Armed Forces so that decision making structures are swifter and better informed.27

12.The Cabinet Office acknowledged that responding to COVID-19 was a massive operation across government requiring a very high level of co-ordination.28 However, we received inadequate responses from our witnesses when we raised cross-cutting issues that are having fundamental effects on many people’s lives. For example, on the impact of lockdown and school closures on children’s life chances and inequalities, both the Cabinet Office and the Ministry said that this was a question for the Department for Education. We recognise of course that the Department for Education is in the lead on education, but it was disappointing that the Cabinet Office and the Ministry had very little to say from the cross government perspective or on the impact for local authorities.29 While the Cabinet Office agreed in theory that inter-Departmental co-operation was essential, there was little concrete evidence of how this worked in practice”.

13.Another example is the gaps in support for self-employed people, given there are large numbers of self-employed people getting no financial support from the government other than Universal Credit. The Treasury recognised that the self-employment income scheme was not universal in coverage and said that it was keeping this issue under review.30

14.Robust and timely data is also crucial to support decision making and efforts to coordinate support to those most in need, for example on the part of local authorities. The Ministry told us that the importance of data, and timely access to data, had come to the fore in the COVID-19 crisis. It gave examples of sharing data with local authorities on people who are shielding and said it had improved “real-time situational awareness” through data at the local resilience forum level. The Ministry stressed that it was not possible to have perfect information in a crisis. It told us that it was still developing the data needed by local government on the Test and Trace programme, focusing on upper-tier authorities.31 It also said that local authorities are in the middle of producing their local authority outbreak plans throughout June and that it did not think the issue of data prevented local authorities from developing these plans. However, local authorities do not currently know where individuals with the virus live or who else they have been in contact with.32 The Ministry recognises that there are still gaps in the data being provided to local areas. In a written submission provided after our evidence session it told us that NHS Digital and the Department of Health & Social Care are planning to expand the range of data available to local authorities and that the Joint Biosecurity Centre is expected to provide “an authoritative and timely summary picture” when it is at full operating capability. The Ministry stated that in developing their outbreak plans, local authorities are taking into account the range of data that will be available to them in the future, as well as what they can access now.33

1 C&AG’s Report, Overview of the UK government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Session 2019–21, HC 366, 21 May 2020

2 C&AG’s Report, paras 1, 1.3, Figure 8

3 C&AG’s Report, para 8

4 C&AG’s Report, para 1.4

5 C&AG’s Report, Figure 2

6 Q 37

7 Qq 1, 3

8 Q 4

9 Q 62

10 Supplementary Information dated 22 June 2020 from the Cabinet Office para 9

11 Qq 60–65

12 Supplementary Information dated 22 June 2020 from the Cabinet Office paras 9, 10

13 Q 61

14 Q 9

15 Q 13

16 Qq 92–93

17 Qq 105–8

18 Committee of Public Accounts, Thirty-ninth Report of Session 2015–16, Accountability to Parliament for taxpayers’ money, HC 732, 4 May 2016, para 18

19 Q 53; C&AG’s Report, para 7

20 Q 56; C&AG’s Report, para 7

21 Committee of Public Accounts, Thirty-ninth Report of Session 2015–16, Accountability to Parliament for taxpayers’ money, HC 732, 4 May 2016, para 20

22 Q 57

23 Q 58

24 Supplementary Information dated 29 June 2020 from HM Treasury, para 4

25 C&AG’s Report, para 1.6, Figure 2

26 Qq 37–38

27 Qq 39–40

28 Q 40

29 Qq 73–76

30 Q 14

31 Qq 79–82

32 Qq 83–84

33 Supplementary Information dated 26 June 2020 from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Published: 23 July 2020