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IFG - Public services were not fit to respond to the coronavirus crisis

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

How fit were public services for coronavirus? sets out an assessment of how prepared and resilient public services, such as the NHS, schools and the police, were for the pandemic.

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.

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
  • 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
  • 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 underinvestment in buildings and ICT meant the criminal justice system, particularly in criminal courts and prisons, struggled to respond
  • 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.

The report recommends that:

  • The government ought to conduct more regular pandemic planning exercises, with key ministers such as the prime minister and health secretary taking part within six months of taking office
  • Government departments, agencies, local authorities, police forces, NHS bodies and other providers of public services must publish their plans for dealing with emergencies and should report annually on progress implementing the key findings from planning exercises
  • Select committees scrutinise departmental plans for emergencies and hold government to account for resolving shortcomings identified in major exercises
  • The government must analyse the resilience of public services when making spending decisions, including an assessment of the ability of staffing, equipment, and buildings to cope with scenarios identified in emergency plans
  • Government departments and agencies should maintain an updated list of trained reserves, recent leavers and volunteers who can be quickly deployed in an emergency
  • Government departments should identify and fill data gaps that prevent it from making real-time assessments of demand and capacity in critical public services.

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.”

Notes to editors:

  1. The full report can be found on our website
  2. The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
  3. For more information, including data to reproduce any charts, please contact press@instituteforgovernment.org.uk / 0785 031 3791.

Associated projects: 

Original article link: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/news/latest/public-services-coronavirus-crisis

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