UK report: Lessons on crisis preparation learned from COVID-19

UK report: Lessons on crisis preparation learned from COVID-19

Lessons on crisis preparation from COVID-19

  • Despite the UK’s high scores for pandemic preparedness and crisis response, the central crisis management systems had to be set aside and replaced early on in the pandemic. Economic and social policy responses—like managing school closures—had not been developed in advance, and much of the planning did not account for the measures people would take (or wish to be taken) to avoid getting sick. In effect, planning for managing large numbers of deaths had been done; planning for the population’s response had not.
  • The British state struggled to mobilize capability to the scale required in the early stages of the crisis. Existing structures were set aside in the procurement of personal protective equipment, testing and tracing, and vaccine procurement. Vaccines were a notable success, and eventually, testing also came good, with the UK ending the pandemic as one of the easiest and cheapest places in the world to get an effective COVID-19 test—but this was after a slow and painful start. These innovations required setting aside some existing procedures and bringing in commercial, procurement and other skills that were not in existence in the civil service.
  • Since the reform of the UK’s crisis management systems two decades ago, local capabilities have been at the heart of crisis plans. But the hollowing-out of local capacity left local government struggling to deliver what was theoretically required of it.
  • This was the first major sustained national crisis in the era of devolution. The breakdown of the initial united ‘four nations’ approach of early March—with all the different parts of the UK going their separate ways by 11 May—indicated a lack of understanding of how arrangements were supposed to work in practice and effective mechanisms for coordinating them. For example, the First Minister of Wales expressed surprise in public that his administration was able to set different rules for international travel.
  • Singapore benefited from the high priority and attention it gives to crisis preparation; Germany for effective coordination between the federal and state levels (and from competitive innovation between states); and Australia from very early decision-making that correctly assumed COVID-19 would be a major crisis.

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