Influential MPs ‘astonished’ at UK government’s delayed pandemic response

As the UK’s economy is hit by its worst contraction for 41 years, an influential committee of MPs has blasted the government’s failure to plan for the economic impact of a pandemic and stock up on protective equipment for health staff.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said in a report that it was “astonished” that the government had failed to consider the economic impact of a pandemic, even though this had been identified for years as a “top risk” by officials.

Issues such as shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) will be considered in detail in a separate report – but the PAC identified “fundamental flaws” in the government’s central procurement.

Getting enough PPE for 58,000 separate sites including hospitals and care was always going to be difficult, but the government failed to stock up in advance despite a pandemic being identified as the government’s top “non-malicious” risk.

According to the PAC the Cabinet Office claims it never ran out of PPE centrally, but there were local shortages of equipment, particularly aprons.

The report said: “It matters very little that the government had enough PPE centrally if these vital goods and equipment are not getting to those who need them locally. The Department of Health and Social Care was not focused enough on the challenge of how to identify need in the care sector and ensure supply of PPE.”

This lack of preparedness also resulted in the government paying higher unit costs, which would have been lessened had the government stocked on PPE sooner or had UK-based supply options.

The government has been criticised elsewhere for its reliance on “just in time” contracts with suppliers of PPE, which failed to produce the necessary equipment in the early days of the pandemic as global demand soared.

However the PAC added that it gave the government credit for moving fast to deliver £120 billion in support for the health and social care sector.

One size fits all

The PAC also criticised the government’s “one size fits all” approach where sectors of the economy have been left without the “bespoke” economic support they need.

One of the committee’s main criticisms was the length of time it took for the government to come up with plans to support businesses and individuals.

While the first case of coronavirus was confirmed on 31 January, it took until the budget on 11 March for the government to announce plans.

It was a further week before it became clear to the treasury that a furlough scheme would be needed, and further delays to a scheme for the self-employed, which had to be designed from scratch.

Looking forward the PAC is concerned that lessons have not been learned ahead of a potential second spike in infections.

“It is not clear that the government is undertaking the necessary preparatory work for a second peak of infections,” the PAC said in its report.

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