Brexit distracted UK from preparing for COVID-19 pandemic: Watchdog

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The UK government’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit took “significant time and resources” away from planning for a potential pandemic, a major report found.

The National Audit Office said the government’s Civil Contingencies Secretariat -- responsible for coordinating the government’s emergency planning and response -- allocated more than half its staff to preparing for potential disruptions from a no-deal departure from the European Union, “limiting its ability to focus on other risks.”

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“Major risk planning for EU Exit contingencies across the civil service took up significant time and resources and meant that the government paused work on other emergency preparations,” the spending watchdog said in its report published Friday. But it said preparations for Brexit also had some “significant benefits” by enhancing the “crisis capabilities” of some departments.

The NAO also found that the UK lacked substantial plans for employment support programs, shielding vulnerable people and school disruption, and failed to act on some warnings about Britain’s lack of preparedness from previous pandemic simulations.

The report adds to pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson over his pandemic decision-making, ahead of a public inquiry due to start next spring. The UK not only recorded the highest death toll in Europe -- over 140,000 so far -- but suffered the sharpest economic hit among the Group of Seven developed nations.

By July 2021, the estimated lifetime cost of measures announced as part of the UK government’s response was 370 billion pounds ($500 billion), the NAO said.

‘Damaged reputation’

More than a third of Britons believe the UK’s handling of the pandemic has damaged its international reputation, a separate survey found. Some 36 percent of respondents to the poll, conducted by Ipsos MORI for King’s College London and also published Friday, said it had a negative impact.

The NAO concluded that the pandemic had “exposed the UK’s vulnerability” to whole-system emergencies, where the emergency is so broad it engages all levels of government and society.

The UK’s 2019 National Security Risk Assessment recognized that a pandemic could have “extensive non-health impacts”-- but the government did not have detailed plans in place for dealing with lots of that fallout, the report found.

“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,” NAO chief Gareth Davies said.

The UK’s main opposition Labor party said there was “a glaring system failure in the UK’s emergency planning that the Conservatives did not fix.

A Government spokesperson said: “We have always said there are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic and have committed to a full public inquiry in spring.”

“We prepare for a range of scenarios and while there were extensive arrangements in place, this is an unprecedented pandemic that has challenged health systems around the world.”

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