‘Government’s slow progress on data hampered pandemic preparedness’

Report from Public Accounts Committee calls for Cabinet Office to set out plan to improve availability, quality and use of information 

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The Public Accounts Committee has claimed that “government’s slow progress in improving data quality and completeness… hampered its preparedness” for the coronavirus crisis.

In a major new report, the committee claimed that similar problems will be encountered in the future if government fails to improve its ability to use data. 

The Cabinet Office has thus been asked to set out how government can make the necessary changes in the availability and use of information. This should form part of wider improvements to cross-departmental processes to understand lessons learned, and implement that learning in future programmes, MPs recommended.

Examples cited by MPs of problems with data hampering coronavirus response work include a contact centre that was set up during the first national lockdown to support society’s most vulnerable citizens – but “could not get in touch with around 800,000 individuals due to missing or inaccurate NHS records”.

“We have repeatedly highlighted longstanding issues with the quality of data held by government and with its ability to use data effectively to support policy interventions,” the report added. “In 2019… [we] noted he lack of government-wide data standards, ageing IT systems, fragmented leadership, and a civil service culture that does not support sharing data across departmental boundaries.”

The committee recommended that the Cabinet Office “set out its assessment of the areas in which the data collected by the National Situation Centre are in greatest need of improvement and what it plans to do to implement those improvements”.

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This exercise should include the details of how the department “plans to retain access to the social care data required to respond to future pandemics”.

In the report, titled Government preparedness for the Covid-19 pandemic: lessons for government on risk, the committee also reiterated calls for the government to establish an independent chief risk officer to oversee risks across government, in a report criticising the government’s pandemic preparations.

Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm and his Department of Health and Social Care counterpart Sir Chris Wormald pushed back on proposals for the creation of a cross-government chief risk officer at PAC in January.

But MPs have accused government officials of showing “a lack of understanding” of what the role would be and the “valuable insight that such a role would bring”.

Government was “underprepared” for the pandemic, which “exposed limitations in how the government manages risks, especially those that cut across institutional boundaries and affect multiple areas of society”, the report said.

It also “exposed a failure to learn from actual incidents and simulation exercises”, the report added.

PAC members warned that that currently there is no-one in government responsible for tackling government-wide risks.

“We are concerned that, if the government does not learn lessons on leadership and oversight for whole system risks, this may come at a high cost to individuals, the economy and society in the future,” the report said.

“Many of the major risks that the country faces would cut across institutional boundaries and affect multiple areas of government and society, if they materialised. Yet, no-one in government is tasked with forming an overarching view of whole system risks, ensuring that all departments are adequately prepared for them, and prompting departments to enhance their preparedness in the areas where they fall short.”

Introducing the new chief risk officer post – at the helm of a new Office for Preparedness and Resilience – was one of a series of recommendations made by members of the House of Lords Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee in December, based on experience from the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the government had already decided to go ahead with creating a head of the risk management profession, one of 28 recommendations made in Nigel Boardman’s review of procurement during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, and officials have pushed back on the chief risk officer idea.

Government finance function head Cat Little told PAC in November she hoped a head for the risk management profession would be “recruited and in post” by 1 April 2022.

At the January PAC hearing, Chisholm, who is also civil service chief operating officer, said a cross-government risk role could blur lines of accountability and prompt buck-passing on the part of perm secs. Wormald questioned whether any one individual would be capable of managing the “CRO” job.

The new PAC report asks the Cabinet Office and Treasury to set out how they intend to introduce robust cross-government leadership and oversight for whole-system risks.

MPs also called for the government to set out plans to increase public awareness of the main risks facing the UK and what the government is doing about them; and how it intends to drive greater international collaboration on risks. 

A government spokesperson said: “We have always said there are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic and the Covid inquiry will play a key role in informing the government’s preparations for the future. We prepare for a range of scenarios and, while there were extensive arrangements in place, this is an unprecedented pandemic that has challenged health systems around the world. Thanks to our collective national effort and our preparations for flu, we have saved lives, vaccinated tens of millions of people and prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed.”


Sam Trendall

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