Brexit preparations hindered a government unprepared for pandemic

A report from the National Audit Office published this morning reveals Brexit preparations hindered the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic how badly prepared the government was a major health emergency. :

This pandemic has exposed a vulnerability to whole-system emergencies – that is, emergencies that are so broad that they engage the entire system. Although the government had plans for an influenza pandemic, it did not have detailed plans for many non-health consequences and some health consequences of a pandemic like COVID-19. There were lessons from previous simulation exercises that were not fully implemented and would have helped prepare for a pandemic like COVID-19. There was limited oversight and assurance of plans in place, and many pre-pandemic plans were not adequate. In addition, there is variation in capacity, capability and maturity of risk management across government departments.

Ed Davey call on Boris Johnson to apologise: “That failure has cost many lives and contributed to an economic collapse the scale of which we are yet to understand. Most hurt of all will be a generation of school children left behind by the Conservatives.”

Britain, we were told by political leaders, was one of the best prepared countries in the world for a pandemic. They it went wrong. Badly wrong. Across the UK, nearly 167,000 people who died since March 2020 had Covid mentioned on their death certificate. The cost to the taxpayer has been £261 billion so far. Seemingly unwilling to have its failures exposed, the government has said the public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic will not start before the spring. But we have independent watchdogs. In October, a joint report by the Commons Health and Social Care and the Science and Technology committees praised the success of the vaccination programme but said the late lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic is “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”. It also described the beginning of the NHS Test and Trace system as “slow, uncertain and often chaotic”.

Today’s report from the National Audit Office says that Brexit hampered planning, with 56 out of 94 members of the Cabinet Office’s Civil Contingencies Secretariat working full time on no-deal preparations. The work of the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Programme Board was “paused or postponed to free up resources for EU Exit work”.

Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Lib Dems, said today:

This is a damning report that reveals a comprehensive failure from government to prepare adequately for the pandemic.

That failure has cost many lives and contributed to an economic collapse the scale of which we are yet to understand. Most hurt of all will be a generation of school children left behind by the Conservatives who still refuse to make more funding available to help pupils catch up.

The Prime Minister must apologise for this failure and acknowledge that an apology is only the beginning of the process. We need an immediate full inquiry and he must make £15 billion available for children to catch up on their education as his own government advisor recommended.

The NAO concluded:

The pandemic has also highlighted the need to strengthen national resilience to prepare for any future events of this scale, and the challenges the government faces in balancing the need to prepare for future events while dealing with day-to-day issues and current events.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Thanks for providing a link to the National Audit Office report, Andy – nice to get sources quoted. However, I used the link to download the full report to see what it said. It actually summarises the impact of Brexit as, “Preparations for EU Exit had significant benefits in responding to the pandemic but diverted resources from other risk and contingency planning“. Several other references to ‘EU Exit’ through the document conform that picture. That’s a lot more nuanced and much less damning than the headline of this article makes out.

  • David Evans 19th Nov '21 - 1:43pm

    The only thing I would disagree with is the headline. I would suggest something a bit more punchy such as “Conservative Brexit obsession totally blinded the Conservatives to the Coronavirus threat.”

  • Barry Lofty 19th Nov '21 - 2:07pm

    I suppose it depends on which side of the Brexit debate you stand and so I would certainly agree with David Evans and whatever happens in the future I believe we will still need a more friendly working relationship with the EU than the one we seem to be pursuing at the moment.

  • John Marriott 19th Nov '21 - 4:58pm

    The fall back position with this government would appear to be “If in doubt, blame the EU”. I agree with Barry that the last thing we should be doing is arguing with those with whom we really ought to be cooperating, whatever the result of the EU referendum.

    The trouble is that there is a significant section of the public who just loves it when their politicians sock it to ‘Johnny Foreigner’, regardless of who is in the right.

  • Barry Lofty 19th Nov '21 - 5:28pm

    John, your “Johnny Foreigner” comment is spot on, I wonder why that is?? It just seems to cause such unnecessary conflict.

  • Andrew Tampion 20th Nov '21 - 6:32am

    One problem with blaming the Governments failure to deal the Pandemic effectively on it’s Brexit obssession is that it could be argued, rightly in my opinion, that had the Liberal Democrats accepted the outcome of the 2016 referendum and worked constructively with the Government to implement it instead of trying to overturn the result then we could have left the EU 9 months earlier than we did and with much less Government and Parliamentary time spent. That Government time would therefore have been available for dealing with other matters including the Pandemic.
    Put more concisely maybe the Liberal Democrat’s Brexit obssession is equally to blame?

  • Barry Lofty 20th Nov '21 - 9:13am

    We may still have been happily ensconced in the EUROPEAN family if the Brexiteers obsession with destabilising our relationship with EU had not occurred.?
    Whatever the reason the governments handling of the pandemic, especially in the early days, left a lot to be desired, to say the least.

  • David Goble 20th Nov '21 - 3:04pm

    @ Barry Lofty. The default position of this Government appears to be, in any situation, to disagree with/blame the EU. Why? Possibly to deflect scrutiny of their domestic actions?
    I would also say that the Government’s “handling” of any situation leaves a lot to be desired!

  • Barry Lofty 20th Nov '21 - 5:42pm

    David Goble@Yes you are correct on both your statements, I completely agree.

  • Chris Moore 21st Nov '21 - 7:03pm

    Justin, I live in Spain and have close links with France and Italy.

    Nobody here gives a tinker’s what the UK in its wierdness chooses to do. They have got many other things closer to home to worry about.

    Nor do they have any real idea how the Uk is botching its Covid response. They are much more interested in how their own government is botching up.

    There is widespread ignorance about politics in neighbouring countries. This goes for people here and it goes for people in the Uk, even for many posters on here.

    I can confirm though that Spanish exporters to the Uk are disgusted at the extra red tape post-Brexit. They have a lot in commion with their UK counterparts then.

    The best solution would be to go back into the customs’ union.

  • The trouble is that the limitations of Westminster were well known in circa 2016 – I remember reading articles where it was clearly stated the UK government just didn’t have the capacity to handle the Brexit negotiations, the rapid development of a post-Brexit bureaucracy and govern the country. Which then became clear to all to see as Westminster got log jammed with Brexit debates. In some respects we were lucky CoViD hit in 2020 and not 2019 or 2018…

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Nov '21 - 7:30am

    “Can you imagine having to show papers to leave your home during lockdown as happened in France and a number of other E.U. countries?”
    Can you please provide evidence of any lockdown in France or the need to show papers to leave your house in France (as opposed to showing papers to enter a restaurant, shopping centre etc. which is what I understand to be the current rule – and I believe ‘shopping centre’ pertains to the large retail parks and hypermarkets etc. rather than to smaller shops)

  • Christopher Moore 22nd Nov '21 - 8:01am

    Yes, Justin, there have been numerous errors in the UK government’s handling of COVID.

    There have also been numerous errors in handling of COVID in most other European countries. UK has been one of the worst, however.

    Where on earth did you get the idea that you needed papers to leave home in France during lockdown?

    You need to show a Covid passport to enter bars and restaurants in France. In nearly all places, this is rigorously observed.

    At certain times of night in certain locales a blind eye is turned, however.

    In Spain, for mega-events a covid passport usually has to be shown.

    A covid “passport” is just a PDF on a smartphone (or paper copy) with your vaccination record and a QR code.

    This is neither expensive to obtain – it’s free – nor to administer.

    Ps regulations around covid have been respected far more in Spain and France than in the Uk.

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Nov '21 - 5:44pm

    It’s good that a report reflects public opinion for once. This government was so obsessed with delivering Brexit that Putin might have started licking his lips. Of course it also saw an opportunity for disguising the calamity of leaving the eu by focusing attention on the pandemic.

  • David Garlick 23rd Nov '21 - 11:28am

    Not at all a surprise for anyone who is or who has been working in local Government. As the ‘smaller government’ tory administrations gradually stripped cash from local authorities the writing was on the wall for a poor response to this emergency as the NHS and the Civil Service were denuded of staff too.

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