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Economic fallout from a pandemic hitting UK was never modelled, senior civil servants admit

Senior MP investigating Covid-19 preparations describes revelation as ‘extraordinary’, adding: ‘I’m quite dumbstruck by that’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 15 June 2020 17:13 BST
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Top civil servants admit no economic planning for pandemic

No planning was done for the enormous economic damage likely to be caused by a pandemic hitting the UK, senior civil servants have admitted.

The government modelled the impact on the health service and on local government’s ability to cope, but did no detailed work on companies having to shut down and on staff being laid off, MPs were told.

“That’s extraordinary,” said Meg Hillier, the chairman of the Commons committee investigating preparations ahead of the Covid-19 outbreak, adding: “I’m quite dumbstruck by that.”

The absence of planning emerged as a quartet of Whitehall permanent civil servants were questioned on their department’s response to the coronavirus, at the start of the year and since.

In 2017, Exercise Cygnus simulated an influenza pandemic, concluding that Britain was not adequately prepared and predicting the crisis that was later to unfold in care homes.

Conservative MP James Wild pointed out that the help packages drawn up by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, had to be reworked several times in March and April, as the economy had to be virtually shut down.

Asked if work had been done “to prepare our economic response”, Alex Chisholm, the head of the Cabinet Office, replied: “I’m not aware of any direct actions that were taken on the economic side.”

Sir Tom Scholar, the Treasury permanent secretary, told the Public Accounts Committee: “We developed our economic response in the weeks running up to the Budget.”

Asked if planning similar to Exercise Cygnus had been carried out “for the economic response to the pandemic”, he replied: “I don’t know the answer to that.”

Mr Wild questioned whether a lack of “schemes on the shelf” had led to “delay” before help was made available for companies and workers.

Although the chancellor has been praised for his hugely expensive bailout schemes, the March Budget had to be hurriedly rewritten – and there was criticism that help for the self-employed was slow to arrive.

“We didn’t have these schemes ready, designed and ready to go – we have been designing them as we have gone along,” Sir Tom admitted.

The Exercise Cygnus report became a subject of controversy after the government refused to publish it, before its findings were leaked to the Guardian last month.

During the evidence session, Mr Chisholm argued it was too soon to say whether the government had been “adequately prepared” for the pandemic while the country was still “very much in the midst of it”.

He said many aspects of Exercise Cygnus had “proved useful”, including draft emergency legislation, local contingency plans and preparations for boosting hospital capacity.

The civil servant also denied that the country had ever run out of personal protective equipment, although the situation was “tight at various points”.

And he revealed the programme to boost the number of ventilators available to the NHS had procured a further 12,000 – taking the total to 20,000 – although they had not been needed.

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