A powerful committee of MPs today accused the Government of an ‘astonishing’ failure to put in place a contingency plan for the economic impact of a pandemic.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has published a scathing report which suggests ministers were badly under-prepared to respond to an outbreak like the coronavirus crisis.
The committee also said the economic reaction to Covid-19 had been rushed and as a result whole sectors of the economy had been left behind.
The cross-party group of MPs said the apparent lack of preparedness for how to prop up the economy during the outbreak could have a ‘long-term’ impact on British prosperity.
The PAC said the Treasury had waited until mid-March, days before Boris Johnson imposed lockdown, before deciding on the economic support schemes it would put in place.
The committee also warned of the impact of lockdown on children as it said the Government had failed to draw up an adequate strategy for how to ensure learning continued while schools were shut.
‘It will be a huge task to ensure lengthy school closures do not have long-term or irreversible effects on children and young people’s future health and education,’ the PAC said.
‘Yet, while school closures were predicted in pandemic planning, there seems to have been no plan for how schools and pupils would be supported to continue to learn.’
The PAC has urged the Government to ‘learn lessons’ from its response and ‘ensure it doesn’t repeat its mistakes again in the event of a second spike in infections – or another novel disease outbreak’.
The report stated: ‘We are astonished by the Government’s failure to consider in advance how it might deal with the economic impacts of a pandemic.’
Labour chairwoman of the committee, Meg Hillier, said: ‘Pandemic planning is the bread and butter of government risk planning, but we learn it was treated solely as a health issue, with no planning for the economic impacts.
‘This meant that the economic strategy was of necessity rushed and reactive, initially a one-size-fits-all response that’s leaving people – and whole sectors of the economy – behind.
‘A competent government does not run a country on the hoof, and it will not steer us through this global health and economic crisis that way.’
The report noted that the Government had undertaken a pandemic simulation exercise in 2016 known as Exercise Cygnus.
However, it stated: ‘Exercise Cygnus may have been health-focused but it is astounding that the Government did not think about the potential impact on the economy, and that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was not even aware of the exercise.’
A Government spokesman said: ‘As the public would expect, we regularly test our pandemic plans, allowing us to rapidly respond to this unprecedented crisis and protect the NHS.
‘It was clear that coronavirus would affect all areas of the country, that’s why we immediately put in place an unprecedented initial economic support package for jobs and business worth £160 billion.
‘The next stage in our economic response will make a further £30 billion available to ensure all areas of the UK bounce back.
‘We’re providing over £100 million to support children to learn at home and a £1 billion Covid catch up fund will directly tackle the impact of lost teaching time, as schools and colleges welcome children back in September.
‘In addition, we’ve committed almost £28 billion to local areas to support councils, businesses and communities.’