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British pandemic strategy has been an “astonishing” failure, says cross-party parliamentary committee

Published on 23/07/20 at 10:34am
Photo by Rennett Stowe

There was an “astonishing” failure of the British government to plan for the economic fallout of a potential pandemic, according to a cross-party group of MPs.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee concluded that the government schemes to help businesses and employers were drawn up in March by the Treasury, weeks after Britain’s first official cases of COVID-19.

Key government ministries such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy were not made aware of a 2016 simulation (Exercise Cygnus) of a flu outbreak that involved 950 planning officials, and as such had little idea of the economic impact of a major pandemic.

Beforehand, pandemic planning had been centred on public health, and economic considerations were not a major factor in government preparations.

Meg Hillier, the Chair of the cross-party Committee, said: “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.

“Government needs to take honest stock now, learning, and rapidly changing course where necessary. We need reassurance that there is serious thinking behind how to manage a second spike.”

June’s official figures showed that the UK economy contracted by 2.2%, the join largest fall since 1979.

A spokesman for the government responded to the Committee’s conclusion, and 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 £160bn.”

Conor Kavanagh

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