Covid crisis 'exacerbated inequality', watchdog says

Covid crisis ‘exacerbated inequality’ and highlighted decades of government underfunding of councils and social care, parliamentary watchdog says

  • National Audit Office found that the pandemic had ‘laid bare existing fault lines’
  • NAO report says government ‘lacked a playbook for many aspects of response’
  • Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said an unreformed adult social care system, workforce shortages and financial pressure ‘all require long-term solutions’  

The Covid crisis has revealed decades-long weak points in Britain’s government and in society generally, a parliamentary watchdog says. 

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the pandemic had ‘laid bare existing fault lines within British society and has exacerbated inequalities’.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said an unreformed adult social care system, workforce shortages and the financial pressure felt by central and local government ‘all require long-term solutions’ after the coronavirus crisis.

The NAO report outlined the effects of underfunding in areas such as councils, healthcare and social care, revealing that as many as 94% of chief finance officers in single tier and county councils expect to make cuts in service budgets in 2021-22. 

It comes as Boris Johnson said he intends to go ahead with his roadmap for lifting England’s lockdown despite fears over the new Covid variant, playing down fears that the June 21 ‘freedom day’ could be ditched because of the strain.

The Indian Covid variant has already overtaken the Kent strain in 23 English local authorities and has spread to 40 per cent of the country. 

The NAO report, published today, says the pandemic has ‘stress-tested the government’s ability to deal with unforeseen events and potential shocks’, but adds that the Government ‘lacked a playbook for many aspects of its response’.

Pre-existing pandemic contingency measures did not include detailed plans for ‘identifying and supporting a large population advised to shield’ or ‘managing mass disruption to schooling on the scale caused by Covid-19’, it says. 

It also claims that, due to the speed of the response to the crisis, the government did not ‘always fully consider the implications of design decisions on different groups of individuals’. 

It comes as Boris Johnson said he intends to go ahead with his roadmap for lifting England’s lockdown despite fears over the new Covid variant

People queuing for Covid vaccinations at the ESSA academy in Bolton as the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant could lead to the return of local lockdowns

The NAO report outlined how, by the end of March 2021, the estimated lifetime cost of measures announced as part of the government’s Covid response was £372billion

It adds: ‘In future, there will be opportunities for government to reflect on how its actions may have affected inequalities, and what ongoing assistance may need to be provided to the front-line and other key workers, on whom the pandemic placed significant physical, mental and emotional demands.’

Labour will look to capitalise on the findings in the final debate on the Queen’s Speech, with the opposition party tabling a humble address calling on the Government to publish its internal review of the handling of the pandemic to ensure lessons can be implemented in the race against the Indian variant.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth is preparing to tell MPs: ‘Boris Johnson promised us an irreversible roadmap to normality.

‘With the spread of the B1617.2 variant threatening to hold us back, we need urgent action from ministers to contain this variant.’

Positive test figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute – which cover only lab-analysed cases in the two weeks between April 25 and May 8 – reveal the mutant Indian strain made up 50 per cent or more of all samples in 23 parts of the country by last week. Bolton and Blackburn in the North West remain the worst-hit areas with almost 600 cases between them and the variant making up 81 per cent of infections

It comes after ministers refused to rule out bringing back local tiered restrictions in a bid to control the highly transmissible Indian variant – although the Prime Minister said there was no ‘conclusive’ evidence to deviate from the road map out of lockdown following rising case numbers of the South Asian mutation in some parts of the country.

North of the border, Nicola Sturgeon was re-elected as the First Minister of Scotland by a majority of MSPs at Holyrood on Tuesday, having vowed that recovery from the coronavirus pandemic was her ‘driving priority’.

The SNP leader said, although there was a ‘clear mandate’ for another Scottish independence referendum following this month’s election results, she would look to make progress on a new border poll ‘only when the crisis of Covid has passed’.

As of early December 2020, three-quarters of local authorities had a reported funding gap in 2020-21 between forecast pressures and estimated government support. As many as 94% of chief finance officers from single tier and county councils surveyed expected to make cuts in service budgets in 2021-22

The NAO report said that in the NHS, staff in non-patient-facing roles were asked to support clinical practice, and by the end of April 2020, an extra 18,200 staff had deployed in clinical and support roles , including 10,100 students and 8,050 returning retired and former healthcare professionals

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s leaders are due to decide this week whether the next stage of easing can go ahead as planned on Monday.

The country reached the milestone of having given more than one million people at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday.     

The NAO report outlined how, by the end of March 2021, the estimated lifetime cost of measures announced as part of the government’s Covid response was £372billion. 

The largest programmes, by estimated lifetime cost, are the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (£62 billion), NHS Test and Trace (£38 billion) and self-employment income support (£27 billion), the report says. 

It adds that local authorities’ finances have been ‘scarred by the pandemic and will not bounce back quickly once the pandemic ends’. 

As of early December 2020, three-quarters of local authorities had a reported funding gap in 2020-21 between forecast pressures and estimated government support.

As many as 94% of chief finance officers from single tier and county councils surveyed expected to make cuts in service budgets in 2021-22. 

The NAO report said that in the NHS, staff in non-patient-facing roles were asked to support clinical practice, and by the end of April 2020, an extra 18,200 staff had deployed in clinical and support roles, including 10,100 students and 8,050 returning retired and former healthcare professionals. 

It adds: ‘Planned care in the NHS was reduced to provide capacity for Covid-19 patients and non-Covid-19 demand for services was lower than usual levels. 

‘It is not yet known to what extent this will cause more patients to present, potentially with more acute problems, in future.’

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