UK failed to heed homeworking warning of pandemic simulations

Report finds British government had inadequate contingency plans for businesses and schools prior to Covid-19

Simulations prior to the coronavirus pandemic warned the UK government to prepare businesses and schools for homeworking, but the advice was "not fully implemented", a report released on Friday found.

The National Audit Office said the government had failed to anticipate the effect a virus like Covid-19 would have on society, the economy, and essential public services.

"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," said NAO head Gareth Davies.

"Although government had plans for a flu pandemic, it was not prepared for a pandemic like Covid-19 and did not learn important lessons from the simulation exercises it carried out."

Although the government had plans for a pandemic, many of these were "not adequate" for the challenge at hand, it said.

This might have been different had it learnt from the conclusions of two pandemic simulations.

Exercise Winter Willow, a large-scale pandemic simulation exercise carried out in 2007, warned that business continuity plans needed to be "better co-ordinated" between organisations – and this was "not evident" in most of the plans reviewed by the NAO.

Exercise Cygnus, another pandemic simulation conducted in 2016, noted that "consideration should be given to the ability of staff to work from home, particularly when staff needed access to secure computer systems".

However, when Covid-19 hit, "many departmental business continuity plans did not include arrangements for extensive home working", the watchdog said.

Government failed to define risk tolerance

The report also said that, prior to the pandemic, the government "did not explicitly agree what level of risk it was willing to accept for an event like Covid-19".

According to the report, the government had prioritised preparations for "two specific viral risks" – an influenza pandemic, and an emergency high-consequence infectious disease.

"For whole-system risks, government needs to define the amount and type of risk that it is willing to take to make informed decisions and prepare appropriately."

The latter typically has a high death rate among those who contract it, or has the ability to spread rapidly, with limited treatment options – such as Ebola and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers).

This pandemic has exposed the UK's vulnerability to whole-system emergencies
Gareth Davies, NAO head

The NAO said that this meant the government did not develop a plan specific to a disease with characteristics like Covid-19 – which has an overall lower death rate than Ebola or Mers, and widespread asymptomatic community transmission.

Brexit a burden and a boon

The NAO also found that time and energy spent preparing for Brexit both helped and hindered planning for future crises.

The watchdog said preparations for leaving the European Union enhanced some departments' "crisis capabilities", but also took up significant resources, meaning the government had to pause or postpone some planning work for a potential flu pandemic.

It found that the emergency planning unit of the Cabinet Office allocated 56 of its 94 full-time equivalent staff to prepare for potential disruptions from a no-deal exit, "limiting its ability" to plan for other crises.

"This raises a challenge for the government as to whether it has the capacity to deal with multiple emergencies or shocks," the report said.

Updated: November 19th 2021, 12:01 AM