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Parliament failed to monitor pandemic preparation in runup to COVID, says think tank

COVID-19 Mask
  • Call for new Civil Contingencies Select Committee
  • Department for Education had no plan for exams in the event of a national emergency such as a pandemic, new FOI reveals
  • Call for measures to break government groupthink
  • New Minister for Resilience and Recovery at Cabinet level required
  • Overhaul “narrow” SAGE to improve advice

The Government is being urged to establish a ‘Civil Contingencies’ Select Committee to ensure “continuous oversight” of preparation for future pandemics and emergencies.


Proactive parliamentary scrutiny of pandemic preparedness was found to be almost non-existent prior to COVID-19, according to the independent Reform think tank.


New research reveals that the last forward looking Select Committee report on government pandemic preparedness, a Lords report on pandemic influenza, was published in 2005, with a follow up in 2009.


Inconsistent preparation, secrecy, and groupthink impeded government pandemic planning and response, the think tank said.


A Freedom of Information request by Reform to the Department for Education (DfE) admitted that no plan had been made for assessing GCSE, AS and A-level students if exams could not proceed nationally, due to a national emergency such as a pandemic.


“As of and before November 2019 there was no specific DfE policy with regards to responding to a Pandemic and, as such, [the DfE could not share any] documents in relation to internal planning”, the DfE said. 


This “gaping hole” in government preparation was despite the high likelihood of a pandemic occurring according to the government National Risk Assessment.


Current measures to prevent groupthink in assessing risks are inadequate, the think tank believes. Scrutiny of risks included in the National Risk Assessment heavily relies on “people either within government or their networks”, meaning limited independent challenge. 


This groupthink, Reform argues, contributed to government’s narrow pandemic planning based on influenza and the failure to sufficiently recognise the risk posed by a novel coronavirus.


Reform is calling for a new ‘Independent Civil Contingencies Advisory Group’ comprising of academics and professionals from the UK and abroad, to operate alongside current structures and provide external challenge.


Rather than waiting for a Public Inquiry, to oversee and drive lesson learning from the pandemic, Reform is calling on the Government to introduce the role of Minister for Resilience and Recovery with the “necessary authority and access to drive change across government”.


The think tank is also calling for resilience and civil contingencies capabilities to be added to a Ministerial brief in every government department.  


To further improve transparency and external scrutiny, the think tank is calling for the ‘Need to Know’ policy to be scrapped for all matters not pertinent to national security on the National Risk Assessment.


Reform is backing calls for all SAGE advice to be regularly published to allow real-time scrutiny of the Group’s advice in an emergency.


Analysis of SAGE advice between January and May, by the think tank, showed it to be consistently out of step with international responses on issues such as prohibiting mass gatherings.


The think tank is also concerned about the narrow composition of SAGE, calling for broader representation from social scientists and economists to ensure ‘non-health impacts’ of recommendations are not overlooked in future pandemics.


Report co-author and Reform Senior Researcher, Aidan Shilson-Thomas, said:  


“Coronavirus has shown us that the worst does happen, and it could again.


“Parliamentary committees are very good at pointing out what has gone wrong. For this pandemic, scrutiny came too late to spot the gaps and groupthink which riddled government’s planning.


“We need continuous, proactive oversight of government preparation for civil emergencies to ensure that next time the State is ready when the worst happens.” 

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