The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the UK’s vulnerability to an emergency that affects the whole of government, society and the economy, and the need to strengthen national resilience to prepare for future risks of this scale, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

Like many other governments across the world, the UK government was underprepared for a pandemic like COVID-19 and will need to learn lessons from its preparations for and handling of whole-system risks. This will include deciding what level of preparations it will need to make.

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.1

Since before the pandemic, stakeholders have identified areas for improvement in the government’s approach to risk assessment. This includes more thorough analysis of high-uncertainty risks (where estimating the likelihood is difficult); risks that may materialise beyond a two-year timeframe; and the impact of multiple risks happening at once.2 The Cabinet Office is currently reviewing aspects of the methodology that it uses to assess risks to the UK.

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. However, some preparations that government had put in place were used in the COVID-19 response, such as the personal protective equipment (PPE) stockpile.

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. Departments’ pandemic plans and business continuity plans set out some, but not all, of the responses required to maintain operations during the pandemic.

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO

Read the full report

The government’s preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic: lessons for government on risk management

Notes for editors

1. The government assesses the key risks facing the UK or its interests overseas over the next two years via the National Security Risk Assessment. This is a classified document that contains about 120 risks and is summarised in a public-facing version, the National Risk Register. Both documents are updated regularly.

2. Key stakeholders include academics, Chief Scientific Advisers and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. More information about the areas for improvement they have identified can be found in paragraph 2.12.

3. Winter Willow was a major exercise involving over 5,000 participants from government, industry and voluntary sector. Simulated the local, regional and UK responses to a pandemic influenza reaching 100,000 cases. Cygnus was a major pandemic influenza exercise exploring the health response, social care policy implications, the use of the third sector to support the response, and the impact on the prison population.

4. 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 uses 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 2020, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £926 million.

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