The British government was unprepared for a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, failed to learn from simulation exercises and was distracted by its departure from the European Union, the government’s spending watchdog said on Friday.
More than 143 000 people have died from COVID-19 in Britain, sparking criticism of Prime Minister Boris Johnson for his response, which was initially based on plans for dealing with a flu pandemic rather than a novel coronavirus.
The National Audit Office (NAO) also highlighted the role of Brexit in soaking up resources, with Britain leaving the European Union on January 31, 2020, the same day as the country’s first confirmed COVID-19 case.
It said the Civil Contingencies Secretariat allocated 56 of its 94 full-time equivalent staff to prepare for potential disruptions from a no-deal Brexit, limiting its ability to focus on other risks and contingency planning at the same time.
“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,” Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said in a statement.
The government paid insufficient heed to warnings from pandemic simulations such as those carried out in 2007 and 2016 over planning and capabilities, the NAO added.
The government said its response was guided by scientific and medical experts, and it had improved its pandemic response plans in light of the 2016 simulation.
“We have always said there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic and have committed to a full public inquiry in spring,” a government spokesperson said. “We prepare for a range of scenarios and while there were extensive arrangements in place, this is an unprecedented pandemic that has challenged health systems around the world.”