The government failed to act on warnings from pandemic simulations and was left unprepared for Covid-19, according to a new parliamentary audit.
Findings from a National Audit Office (NAO) audit said the government needs to “strengthen national resilience to prepare for future risks of this scale”, after its previous emergency plans lacked key detail on things like employment support schemes or schooling disruption.
Two simulations were carried out by the government in 2007 and 2016 respectively – Winter Willow and Exercise Cygnus – to judge the UK’s pandemic preparedness.
The independent audit said these two simulations, while based around an influenza pandemic, highlighted the “need for better coordinated plans” and “the difficulties of extensive homeworking”.
However, the NAO says these issues were not taken up by the government and were not rectified in the Cabinet Office’s pandemic plans.
Former senior Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings earlier this year said the government’s immediate response to Covid-19 in March 2020 was a complete disaster that led to many thousands of people “dying needlessly”.
The UK has one of the highest Covid mortality rates in Europe, with 143,000 people dead.
NAO chief Gareth Davies said the Cabinet Office needs to implement cross-Whitehall plans for future potential crises to ensure ” risk management, business continuity and emergency planning are more comprehensive”.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Labour shadow cabinet office minister Fleur Anderson said the government “failed the public”.
“The government is supposed to keep us safe, but there is a glaring system failure in the UK’s emergency planning that the Conservatives did not fix and are not willing to fix,” she said.
A government spokesperson said: “We have always said there are lessons to be learnt 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.
“Thanks to our collective national effort and our preparations for flu, we have saved lives, vaccinated tens of millions of people and prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed.”