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Overview of the UK government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO) provides an overview of government’s wide-ranging response to COVID-19. It has found that between 31 January and 4 May, government made over 500 announcements. The report sets out £124.3 billion of programmes, initiatives and spending commitments in response to the pandemic.1

The costs of government’s response are large and uncertain and will depend on the continuing health and economic impacts of the pandemic.2 The £124.3 billion of programmes, initiatives and spending commitments announced by government cover grants and other payments (£111.3 billion); expected costs of loans (£5.0 billion) and increases to benefits (£8.0 billion). This does not include loss of receipts to the Exchequer of £4.4 billion, largely from deferred tax payments.

Government’s response was mobilised across five areas, with the following spending commitments:3

  • £6.6 billion:4 Health and social care measures, covering equipment, testing, services and vaccine development; 
  • £15.8 billion: Other public services and the wider emergency response, including funding for local government services, education and children’s services;
  • £19.5 billion: Support for individuals, including benefits and sick pay and support for vulnerable people;
  • £82.2 billion: Support for businesses, including support for retaining jobs, loans and grants; and
  • £0.2 billion: Other support, including providing the public with information

There have been 11 ministerial directions related to the government’s responses to COVID-19. These have been sought and granted to exceed Departmental Expenditure Limits authorised by Parliament for 2019-20 to support urgent spend; and because it had not been possible for departments to carry out as full an appraisal of the value for money of some schemes as would usually be undertaken.5

This report is the first of a programme of work to be undertaken by the NAO to support Parliament in its scrutiny of government’s response to COVID-19. It provides a summary of government’s actions up to 4 May and includes additional government funding commitments of over £0.5 billion made up until 15 May but does not assess their value for money or their effectiveness. The NAO will continue to update Parliament on further government announcements, programmes and their costs. It will also undertake detailed audits of specific elements of government’s response, to identify lessons for subsequent stages of the pandemic and potential future pandemics.

“The scale and nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and government’s response is unprecedented in recent history.

“This report outlines the range of measures taken by government to date and where financial support has been targeted. It also forms the basis for a substantial programme of independent reports from the National Audit Office to Parliament and the public on how the money has been spent and the lessons learned.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO

Notes for Editors

  1. The report covers the main actions taken by the UK government in England, as well as the funding provided to support responses in the devolved administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, up to 4 May 2020, and includes additional government funding commitments of over £0.5 billion, made up to 15 May 2020. It does not cover the individual responses in the devolved administrations, or the separate responses implemented by local authorities.
  2. The aim of this report is to provide a broad overview of activity and estimated costs. Events are moving quickly and the UK government’s response to COVID-19 is evolving. The figures in this report are initial estimates of costs and our best understanding of the announced measures. Many costs are not yet final as the UK government's response continues. Precise costs will also depend on a range of uncertain factors, including the impact of the crisis on the wider economy and the level of take-up for each scheme. As a result, there are limitations and uncertainty in the information available.
  3. These cost commitments are those that we have been able to identify for central government spending, based on estimates from departments and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). The cost commitments do include the UK's government's allocation of funding to local authorities in England and devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but do not include further spending decisions taken by them. Some of these commitments are likely to change over time for a given period of support, which may lead to adjustments in costs and receipts. Departments have reviewed and commented on the activities and costs relating to them. HM Treasury has commented on some aspects of the report but has not fact checked all the figures.
  4. The £124.3 billion figure does not include £13.4 billion of NHS debt written off from 1 April 2020. The amount of debt written off is subject to validation and has no fiscal cost to the government.
  5. 5. A ministerial direction is sought when the permanent secretary of a department thinks that a spending proposal breaches any of the following criteria: regularity; propriety; value for money or feasibility.
  6. The National Audit Office (NAO) helps Parliament hold government to account for the way it spends public money. It is independent of government and the civil service. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether government is delivering value for money on behalf of the public, concluding on whether resources have been used efficiently, effectively and with economy. The NAO identifies ways that government can make better use of public money to improve people's lives. It measures this impact annually. In 2018 the NAO's work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £539 million.
  7. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

Contact

NAO Press Office
+44 (0)20 7798 7400 or email pressoffice@nao.org.uk

PN: 21/20