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A CROSS-PARTY group of MPs has lambasted the government’s “astonishing” failure to plan for the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, in a damning report published today.
The Commons public accounts committee (PAC) urged the government to provide reassurances that it will be able to cope with a second spike of infections.
Ministers must “learn lessons” from from their inadequate response so far, and “ensure [government] doesn’t repeat its mistakes again,” it said.
The PAC expressed concern over the government’s failure to stock up on personal protective equipment (PPE) before the pandemic — despite such an event being identified as the top non-malicious risk facing the country.
It noted the difficulty of distributing such items to 58,000 sites, including hospitals and care homes, but said: “The Department of Health and Social Care was not focused enough on the challenge of how to identify need in the care sector and ensure supply of PPE.”
The ministry notoriously conducted a pandemic drill called Exercise Cygnus in 2016 that predicted the PPE shortage crisis – yet stocks were allowed to dwindle and expire anyway in line with Conservative austerity spending cuts.
Dr Mona Kamal Ahmed, a consultant forensic psychiatrist and member of Keep Our NHS Public, said that the government “cannot be in denial” over its failure, saying it has been “10 years in the making.”
She told the Morning Star that the woeful lack of preparation has been down to “unprecedented austerity cuts, record bed closures, rapidly escalating sell-offs to the private sector and failure to keep pandemic supplies well stocked.”
“NHS staff and campaigners have been sounding the alarm for years and we knew at the start of this crisis that we would struggle to cope – we’ve all seen the pictures of patients lined up on trollies in hospital corridors during the winter crisis,” she said.
“So when [Health Secretary] Matt Hancock told us back in February that we were well prepared and well equipped for the pandemic, we knew this was not true.
“It’s the 60,000 patients who’ve died and the hundreds of NHS staff that we’ve lost who have paid the price.”
Kelly Andrews, GMB union’s care lead, said that the government’s failures have been “shocking,” and noted that the union outlined its concerns in a letter to care minister Helen Whately in March.
“Yet our members still faced going into work with little or no PPE while on the front line,” Ms Andrews said.
“The minister ignored repeated warnings as the crisis unfolded in other countries, and they put the care home residents directly in harm’s way of the virus. There is no excuse for this.”
Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Bridget Phillipson said the report reiterates concerns that the party has been pressing the government on for months.
“It is a sorry catalogue of government failure. Their planning was incompetent and their response has been slow,” she said.
The PAC’s report also said that the economic response to the crisis was rushed and has left whole sectors behind, while the lack of preparation could have a “long-term” impact on the economy.
It criticised the Treasury’s decision to wait until mid-March, days before the lockdown, to decide on the economic support schemes it would put in place.
The committee also warned of the impact on children, saying that there “seems to have been no plan for how schools and pupils would be supported to continue to learn” while in lockdown.
A government spokesman said that ministers “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 £30bn available to ensure all areas of the UK bounce back,” he said.
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