Public services 'were not fit to respond' to COVID-19 pandemic

Failures in planning and funding cuts meant public services were not well prepared to handle the COVID-19 crisis, says a new report from the Institute for Government and the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy.

The report found that government plans were too focused on a flu pandemic, with not enough attention paid to the possibility of other types of pandemic. This is while adult social care services struggled because of poor quality national plans, weak communication between Whitehall and local government, and the large number of care homes. 

Police and prison services had experience of handling emergencies, but under-investment in buildings and ICT meant the criminal justice system, particularly in criminal courts and prisons, struggled to respond. Courts were already dealing with severe backlogs before the crisis, and the suspension of jury trials at the start of the pandemic caused the system even more trouble. 

 However, planning for a no-deal Brexit in 2019 meant the Department of Health and Social Care had a greater understanding of how supply chains would be disrupted in a pandemic and had improved its stockpiles of some drugs. Good planning ensured that hospitals could respond well to the first wave, but high staff vacancies and a maintenance backlog will make it far harder to restart routine services.

The report’s ‘fitness ratings’ chart shows important gaps in emergency plans, with the government failing to learn lessons from Exercise Cygnus, the last major exercise to prepare for a pandemic. Public services have also been constrained by a decade of budget pressure in which their scope and quality declined, staff became more stretched, buildings weren’t maintained, and vital equipment went unbought.

While all services benefited from the existence of emergency plans and command structures, these varied greatly in detail, focus and adaptability. The report says serious questions must be answered about whether these services could and should have been better prepared and more resilient.

Nick Davies, programme director at the Institute for Government, said:

“Frontline staff have performed remarkably during the crisis, in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. But public services have faltered due to decisions made over the past decade.

“Greater investment in staff, buildings and equipment would have left services far better placed to respond to coronavirus. The government must learn from these mistakes, reflect on where public services are least resilient, and ensure that key services are better prepared for either a second wave of coronavirus or any future pandemic.”

Rob Whiteman, CIPFA CEO, said:

“A decade of austerity has resulted in over-stretched and under-resourced public services that were already facing rising demand before the pandemic struck. COVID-19 supercharged these pressures, with adult social care facing particular strain.

“In addition to meeting the additional costs resulting from the pandemic and enhancing emergency planning procedures, the government must utilise the current momentum as a catalyst for adult social care reform.”