The COVID-19 pandemic represented an unprecedented challenge to the United Kingdom’s public services. This report describes how service providers responded. Some of the responses that witnesses described to us were prompt and successful. At the national level, the NHS rapidly upscaled its acute care capacity with the construction of Nightingale hospitals; at the local level, 15,000 rough sleepers were safely re-housed. Many public service providers developed remarkable innovations to meet the challenge of COVID-19. Decisions which before the pandemic took months were made in minutes. Good personal and organisational relationships broke down longstanding barriers between the statutory and voluntary sectors. New ways to deliver services flourished. Digital technology was used more widely, and more successfully, than ever before.
But we also heard that the United Kingdom’s public services had entered the COVID-19 pandemic with low levels of resilience. The virus further disadvantaged many who were already left behind. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people suffered disproportionately, the result of historical underfunding of preventative health services. Disadvantaged children fared worse during the pandemic, too; the educational attainment gap between the poorest children and their counterparts grew wider. The overall public health response was at times hampered by over-centralised, poorly coordinated and poorly communicated policies that were designed and delivered by central Government, even though local-level providers were often better equipped.
This report makes recommendations for how public services can hold on to the advances that they achieved during the pandemic. It argues that despite the formidable efforts of many, without fundamental reform to address the weaknesses that we identify, this good work will be lost. Our proposals therefore focus more on how to reform and transform public services than on how well public services responded to COVID-19.
We are by no means alone in recognising the pandemic as a ‘critical juncture’—an opportunity to deliver lasting and transformative reform of public services. The Prime Minister, Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, has made a similar case. This report therefore calls on the Government, and on other public service providers, to follow eight key ‘principles for public service reform’ when undertaking this essential task:
The Government has promised an independent inquiry into the pandemic, and how services responded. We make a number of proposals for how it might assess what worked well, and what worked less well. This is the first report of the House of Lords Public Services Committee, and we present it as a starting point from which to learn the lessons of COVID-19. We will return in future inquiries to some of the issues of public sector reform identified in this report.