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A 2016 government drill to prepare for a pandemic such as Covid-19 failed to look at the “economic side” of a new virus hitting the UK, top civil servants have admitted.
Operation Cygnus, which was aimed at testing UK resilience to a new and unknown disease, exposed how hospitals and care homes faced being overwhelmed.
It has already been criticised for failing to check up on supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), capacity for testing and the number of ventilators.
But now, civil service heads have revealed to MPs that the operation did not make recommendations to Treasury or business department officials.
Chair of the public accounts committee Meg Hillier has described the revelations as a “shocking gap” in the government’s responsibility to plan.
It comes amid widespread fears of job losses after the Office for National Statistics confirmed last week that UK GDP fell by a record 20.4% in April - the first full month of the lockdown.
The committee heard planning for major government changes to cope with lockdown - including the emergency wages furlough payments, business interruption loans and a massive uptick in Universal Credit claims - was not begun until after chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget on March 11.
The first UK cases of coronavirus were recorded on January 31 in York.
At the committee hearing, Tom Scholar, permanent secretary at HM Treasury, was asked by MPs if his department had taken part in the drill.
When he replied “I don’t know the answer to that”, and stated that planning began after the budget, the committee turned to Alex Chisholm, the top civil servant at the Cabinet Office, who was also before the committee to answer questions.
Asked if Operation Cygnus had made no recommendations on how to help businesses and protect jobs in the event of a virus, he replied: “That’s the case. We didn’t have the schemes ready designed and ready to go. We have been designing them as we have gone along.”
Chisholm, who was the top civil servant at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2016, went on to say the exercise was “between the Cabinet Office and the Department for Health and Social Care” rather than the rest of Whitehall.
Asked if he was even aware that the exercise had taken place at the time, Chisholm said: “Not that I recall, no.”
Hillier, who said she was “dumbstruck” by the admission, went on to ask if the Cabinet Office had made recommendations either to the Treasury or the business department.
Tory MP James Wild also pressed Chisholm, saying: “A big exercise in 2016 of a potential pandemic, global health crisis, but there was no work done off the back of that to prepare our economic response?”
Chisholm replied: “I’m not aware not aware of any direct actions that were taken on the economic side.”
We saw all of this coming, for months and in fact years, and we just failed to plan, and failed to act.Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons' public accounts committee
Speaking after the committee hearing, Hillier told HuffPost UK: “What has emerged today is a shocking gap in the UK’s planning in this emergency: between the first reports of the new virus emerging across the world and the detectable beginnings of a real response, and now we learn that government, staggeringly, didn’t actually consider the economy in its longer term pandemic planning at all.
“We saw all of this coming, for months and in fact years, and we just failed to plan, and failed to act. It’s not good enough to say, as seems to be the official line now, that the future will judge. This is an active emergency, we’re at risk of a second wave and apparently still learning precious little from the terrible new world we find ourselves in. We can’t keep losing time – and lives - to poor, late decisions and processes.”