A damning report from the National Audit Office has found that the Westminster Tory Government diverted so many staff from pandemic planning to concentrate on Brexit that the SNP says “it is difficult to come to any other conclusion than that this obsession ultimately led to lives being lost to Covid”.
The NAO report states that the Tory Government’s planning in 2019 for no-deal Brexit diverted crucial resources from other risk or contingency planning like pandemic planning.
The NAO report “The government’s preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic: lessons for government on risk management” states that preparations for EU Exit took up a significant amount of time and resources across the civil service.
Government officials reported that this limited the time and resources that were devoted to preparing for other emergencies.
Some work areas of the Pandemic Flu Readiness Board and the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Programme Board, including scheduling a pandemic influenza exercise in 2019-20, were paused or postponed to free up resources for EU Exit work;
As of March 2019, the CCS (“Civil Contingencies Secretariat”) had allocated 56 of its 94 full-time equivalent staff to preparing for potential disruptions from a no-deal exit, limiting the resources that it could devote to planning for other emergencies;
The National Exercise Programme was significantly scaled down from 2017 onward as resources were directed to the operational and policy response to the Grenfell Tower fire and to EU Exit work;
National guidance to local resilience forums on excess deaths for an influenza pandemic was published in 2012.
Public Health England told us that work to update this guidance started in 2018 but was overtaken by EU Exit preparations.
Commenting on the report, SNP MP Dr Philippa Whitford said:
“These findings are utterly damning but they are not surprising – the threat of a pandemic has been at the top of the UK risk register since 2009 but everyone knows the Westminster Tory Government took its eye off the ball to prepare for a possible ‘no deal’ Brexit.
“When diligent and capable civil servants should have been ensuring the PPE stockpile was maintained and planning the response to any major health emergency, their Tory bosses diverted them to focus instead on their Brexit obsession.
“Sadly, it is difficult to come to any other conclusion than that this obsession ultimately led to lives being lost to Covid, including those healthcare staff who could not access PPE.
“Had the Tories not been so consumed by their damaging Brexit folly, lessons could have been learned from the failures identified by Exercise Cygnus in 2016 and preparations would have been in place to better combat the pandemic that has left so many families grieving.
“Political decisions have consequences.
“On top of a decade of austerity, which had weakened healthcare provision, Brexit was a Tory choice for which many people have paid dearly.
“It is as unforgivable as it was avoidable.
“The Tories refused our calls, and offers from the EU, to suspend the Brexit process and steamed ahead with the end of the transition with cavalier disregard for the consequences.
“Last January, the UK Government dragged Scotland out of the largest single market in the world, causing supply chain issues and exacerbating workforce shortages in the NHS and care sector which continue to impede the nation’s covid response.
“Those responsible should feel shame and a very deep sense of guilt but sadly, I don’t think they are capable of such basic humanity!”