Background to the report

The scale and nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s response are without precedent in recent history. Many people have died, and many lives, families and businesses have been adversely affected. By the end of July 2021, the estimated lifetime cost of measures announced as part of the government’s response was £370 billion. Like many other governments across the world, the UK government was underprepared for a pandemic like COVID-19. It will need to learn lessons from its preparations for and handling of whole-system risks, which will include making judgements on what level of preparations is appropriate.

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The Cabinet Office, through its Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS), is responsible for coordinating the government’s planning for, and response to, major emergencies. Individual departments and other public sector organisations are responsible for identifying and managing risks in line with their desired risk appetite, including relevant national risks allocated to them by the Cabinet Office. For example, the Department of Health & Social Care is responsible for planning for the health and social care impacts of health-related risks. All departments are responsible for planning for emergencies that would have significant consequences in their areas of remit

Scope of the report

This report sets out the facts on:

  • the government’s approach to risk management and emergency planning (Part One);
  • the actions the government took to identify the risk of a pandemic like COVID-19 (Part Two);
  • the actions the government took to prepare for a pandemic like COVID-19 (Part Three); and
  • recent developments (Part Four).

The report sets out central government’s risk analysis, planning, and mitigation strategies prior to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the aim of drawing out wider learning for the government’s overall risk management approach. It does not cover local-level risk planning, wider aspects of resilience planning or top-level disaster response procedures. It also does not cover the government’s response to COVID-19 or how prepared it was for subsequent waves of the pandemic.

Report conclusions

This pandemic has exposed a vulnerability to whole-system emergencies – that is, emergencies that are so broad that they engage the entire system. Although the government had plans for an influenza pandemic, it did not have detailed plans for many non-health consequences and some health consequences of a pandemic like COVID-19. There were lessons from previous simulation exercises that were not fully implemented and would have helped prepare for a pandemic like COVID-19. There was limited oversight and assurance of plans in place, and many pre-pandemic plans were not adequate. In addition, there is variation in capacity, capability and maturity of risk management across government departments.

The pandemic has highlighted the need to strengthen the government’s end‑to‑end risk management process to ensure that it addresses all significant risks, including interdependent and systemic risks. This will require collaboration on risk identification and management not only across government departments and local authorities, but also with the private sector and internationally. For whole‑system risks the government needs to define its risk appetite to make informed decisions and prepare appropriately so that value for money can be protected. The pandemic has also highlighted the need to strengthen national resilience to prepare for any future events of this scale, and the challenges the government faces in balancing the need to prepare for future events while dealing with day-to-day issues and current events.

“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


Publication details

Press release

View press release (19 Nov 2021)

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