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Government failed to prepare for a disease like Covid-19, report finds

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the UK’s vulnerability to such an emergency and the need to strengthen national preparedness in the future.

This is the key message of a National Audit Office report, which also finds the Government had not prepared for a disease with characteristics like Covid-19.

The Government has had a national risk assessment in place since 2005. This is updated regularly and identifies the key risks facing the UK or its interests overseas.

Since 2008, the Government’s National Risk Register (the Register) has identified an influenza pandemic as the UK’s top non-malicious risk.

But it prioritised preparedness for a flu pandemic and for an emerging high-consequence infectious disease, like Ebola. The Government did not develop a specific pandemic preparedness plan for a disease with characteristics like COVID-19, with a lower mortality rate and widespread asymptomatic community transmission.

Government was not fully prepared for the wide-ranging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on society, the economy and essential public services. For example, it lacked detailed plans on shielding, employment support schemes and managing the disruption to schooling.

Government did not act upon some warnings from the pandemic simulations carried out prior to COVID-19. Simulation exercises such as Winter Willow (2007) and Exercise Cygnus (2016) were based on an influenza pandemic but highlighted general issues around planning, coordination and capability that apply to pandemics more broadly.

Winter Willow highlighted the need for better-coordinated plans. Cygnus highlighted the difficulties of extensive homeworking, but these were not evident in most pandemic plans reviewed by the NAO.

Better prepared

The NAO recommends that government strengthens its preparations for system-wide emergencies.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “This pandemic has exposed the UK’s vulnerability to whole-system emergencies, where the emergency is so broad that it engages all levels of government and society.

“Although government had plans for a flu pandemic, it was not prepared for a pandemic like COVID-19 and did not learn important lessons from the simulation exercises it carried out.”

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