Aidan Shilson-Thomas: Parliament failed to monitor pandemic preparation in the run-up to Covid

22 Mar

Aidan Shilson-Thomas is a Senior Researcher at Reform.

Calls for the inevitable Covid-19 Public Inquiry have started to come in. Rightly, government will face some difficult questions: why was planning so narrowly focused on influenza, should lockdown have happened earlier, why was track and trace so slow to get off the ground?

These are important questions, and we should expect honest answers. Yet, there’s another question that isn’t being asked: when successive governments were failing to get on top of pandemic preparedness, where was Parliament?

One of Parliament’s first duties is “to check and challenge the work of Government (scrutiny)” – it says so on its website. There can be little more important than ensuring that the UK and its citizens are protected from the risks we face.

Since the pandemic started, Parliament has scrutinised the Government’s every move. Not only has the health response been picked apart, but MPs and committees have looked at how departments like Justice and Education have responded to impacts in their areas. The Public Accounts Committee has also examined the whole-of-government response. Providing lessons are acted on, these inquiries will help ensure we are better prepared for the next pandemic. But one of those lessons must be that Parliamentary interest came too late.

Before Covid-19, Parliament – like government and, indeed, much of the world – took its eye off the ball. The last report on pandemic influenza by a Select Committee was published in 2009, a follow up to the second most recent report, which was published in 2005.

More than a decade later, many of the impacts of a pandemic that were worst feared have come to pass. Had Parliament scrutinised pandemic preparedness more closely, the inadequacies of the UK’s planning and capabilities may not have gone so woefully unchecked.

This isn’t just true of pandemic preparedness, either. The UK faces a number of risks that could have far-reaching and serious impacts for the country – from widespread “electrical failure” to severe “space weather”, both listed in the National Risk Register. Yet despite some proactive scrutiny of high-likelihood risks such as flooding, and of the government machinery for handling emergencies, oversight is patchy and irregular.

A step change in the UK’s approach to preparing for future crises will require action at every level of government, the institutions that hold it to account, and society. Parliament is no exception.

That is why Reform is today calling for a new Civil Contingencies Select Committee, dedicated solely to scrutinising government’s resilience capabilities. It would challenge the government of the day on how ready it is to respond to the risks facing the country; review the quality of risk assessments, planning, and capabilities; and hold ministers to account.

Had this been in place years ago, questions might have been asked about the narrow focus on an influenza pandemic. The 2017 National Risk Register did not recognise an emerging infectious disease as having pandemic potential, saying one could “potentially lead to up to 100 fatalities.” The Committee would also have probed how far independent expertise was being brought in to challenge such assumptions.

It would have discovered before the pandemic hit that the Department for Education had no plans for the national cancellation of exams, and that the Treasury had not made plans for having to shut great swathes of the economy. Yet, both these things were foreseeable pandemic impacts.

We can’t expect existing committees to add this task to their already significant workload. They are busy enough scrutinising government’s normal business, without also having to worry about things that may or may not happen. As we have seen at a ministerial and senior official level, pressing day-to-day issues will always take priority. State resilience must be given its own focus to ensure it is never again neglected.

What’s more, the singular departmental focus of most existing committees is entirely unfit for considering cross-government risks. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that the consequences of a crisis are not contained within neat departmental boundaries. The knock-on impacts of Covid-19 on the economy and education have been devastating, and the effects will be felt long after masks and social distancing have disappeared.

Drawing the membership of this new committee from across existing select committees would help break this siloed approach and make clear that resilience is a job for all of government.

Once the Government has moved a motion in Parliament to make this happen, it needs to give the Committee the necessary access to carry out its vital work. For too long, government’s resilience efforts have been shrouded in secrecy, so much so that even Parliament hadn’t seen the findings of Exercise Cygnus until they were leaked. Government needs to move from “need to know” to “need to share”, thus enabling Parliament to hold up its end of the bargain.

Public Inquiries have their place – they bring accountability, some closure, and some lesson learning – but they can also take many years to complete and become marred by finger pointing. Their findings could come too late even for the next pandemic. When risks are continuously changing, government’s preparedness, and Parliament’s scrutiny, must be constant.

Parliament must live up to its responsibility to hold the executive to account for keeping the people safe. The Civil Contingencies Select Committee would be a major step forwards to ensuring the failures of Covid-19 are not repeated.