Over the last year, the National Audit Office has reported on the breadth of government’s response to COVID-19. Today’s report draws out the initial learning from this work to help government evaluate its performance, capitalise on new ways of working and better manage potential future emergencies.

COVID-19 has stress-tested the government’s ability to deal with unforeseen events and extreme shocks. Like many countries, the UK was not as prepared for the pandemic as it could have been, and government lacked detailed contingency plans to manage the unfolding situation. To deal with the crisis, government has had to streamline decision-making and coordinate efforts across multiple departments, public and private sector bodies. There are many examples of impressive national and local responses to the urgent need for healthcare and economic support on an unprecedented scale.

The response to the pandemic has provided a vast amount of new learning, both from what has worked well and what has not. It has highlighted the importance of government adopting a more systematic approach to preparing for crises, improving the resilience of key services and making better use of data. Working at pace naturally introduces greater levels of risk, but being transparent, properly documenting decisions and managing conflicts of interest is essential if government is to maintain public trust that taxpayers’ money is being spent appropriately and fairly.

COVID-19 has also laid bare existing fault lines within society and has exacerbated inequalities. An unreformed adult social care system, workforce shortages, issues caused by legacy IT systems, and the financial pressure felt by central and local government all require long-term solutions.

Today’s report sets out learning from the NAO’s 17 published reports on COVID-19 across six themes:

  • risk management
  • transparency and public trust
  • data and evidence
  • coordination and delivery models
  • supporting and protecting people
  • financial and workforce pressures

The NAO will continue to draw out learning from the government’s response to COVID-19 in its future work on the pandemic, to provide Parliament and the public with timely reporting to support accountability.

“COVID-19 has required government to respond to an exceptionally challenging and rapidly changing threat. There is much to learn from the successes and failures in government’s response and this report is our initial contribution to that process. Applying these lessons is not only important for the remaining phases of the current pandemic but should also help better prepare the UK for future emergencies.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Notes for editors

1. 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.  

About the NAO

The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it use its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and report on the value for money of how public money has been spent.

In 2019, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £1.1 billion.