PREPARATIONS for Brexit were given priority by the UK Government over planning and preparation for a pandemic, a report by the National Audit Office has found.

Though not the devastating indictment of the Government that many were expecting, the NAO report is nevertheless highly critical of the lack of preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic.

Given that Scotland voted against Brexit, there will be anger here at this section of the report: “Preparations for EU exit enhanced the crisis capabilities and risk planning of some departments but meant that government paused work on other emergency preparations.

"For example, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat allocated 56 of its 94 full-time equivalent staff to prepare for potential disruptions from a no-deal exit, limiting its ability to focus on other risk and contingency planning at the same time.”

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The main conclusion is that the UK Government was preparing for an influenza pandemic but not one of coronavirus.

The NAO stated: “Since 2008, the Government’s National Risk Register (the Register) has identified an influenza pandemic as the UK’s top non-malicious risk. Prior to the pandemic, the Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC) had identified a pandemic as a significant risk to its operations. Other departments had identified risks relating to the possible consequences of a pandemic. At the local level, all community risk registers identified an influenza pandemic as a significant risk.

“Government prioritised preparedness for a flu pandemic and for an emerging high-consequence infectious disease – a very infectious disease that typically causes the death of a high proportion of the individuals who contract it, or has the ability to spread rapidly, with few or no treatment options – such as Ebola. Government did not develop a specific pandemic preparedness plan for a disease with characteristics like Covid-19, which has an overall lower mortality rate and widespread asymptomatic community transmission.”

The report notes that some preparations that government had put in place were used in the Covid-19 response, such as the personal protective equipment (PPE) stockpile, but Government was not fully prepared for the wide-ranging impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on society, the economy and essential public services.

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“For example,” the report adds, “it lacked detailed plans on shielding, employment support schemes and managing the disruption to schooling. Departments’ pandemic plans and business continuity plans set out some, but not all, of the responses required to maintain operations during the pandemic.”

The National has previously highlighted that lessons were not learned from the 2016 pandemic preparation exercise Operation Cygnus, and the report concludes: “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.”

The report contains several recommendations, the main one of which states: "The NAO recommends that government strengthens its preparations for system-wide emergencies. For example, the Cabinet Office should establish who leads and manages system-wide risks, and strengthen oversight and assurance arrangements over preparations for system-wide emergencies. It should also work with other government departments to ensure that their risk management, business continuity and emergency planning are more comprehensive, holistic and integrated. Lessons learned from simulation exercises should also be promptly disseminated and implemented across government.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, commented: “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.

“For whole-system risks, government needs to define the amount and type of risk that it is willing to take to make informed decisions and prepare appropriately.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: "We have always said there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic and have committed to a full public inquiry in spring.

"We prepare for a range of scenarios and while there were extensive arrangements in place, this is an unprecedented pandemic that has challenged health systems around the world."