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Britain faces ‘decades of financial risk’ as £370bn pandemic bill mounts

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: David Levene/the Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/the Guardian

Taxpayers will be left facing “significant financial risk for decades to come” because of the levels of emergency government spending on the pandemic, totalling more than £370bn, a powerful committee of MPs says today.

In two separate reports, the all-party public accounts committee (PAC) paints a daunting picture of the lasting financial strain caused by the first 16 months of combating Covid-19, and says the government must not wait until after the official inquiry to learn the lessons of what went wrong.

The MPs say that by this March the lifetime cost of the government’s rescue measures had reached £372bn, government-backed loans had soared, and taxpayers had been left “on the hook” for an estimated £26bn of credit and fraud losses from the bounce-back loan scheme for small- and medium-sized enterprises alone.

While Boris Johnson, has promised a public inquiry into the handling of Covid-19 it will not begin until next spring and will take years to complete, leaving the prime minister open to accusations that he wants to avoid the truth coming out before the next general election.

The PAC says, however, that the national interest demands understanding and recognition of the many shortcomings far sooner. The MPs say it is “clear that the government cannot wait for the review before learning important lessons”.

They expect ministers to “set out a fully costed plan for recovering from the pandemic” in the autumn spending review, alongside a comprehensive framework for managing the risks to public finances resulting from the Covid-19 response.

The committee also highlights worries about the government’s readiness to fight Covid-19 and other diseases in the future, saying it “remains concerned that, despite spending over £10bn on supplies, the PPE stockpile is not fit for purpose”.

Listing a catalogue of problems, the MPs found that up to this May 32 billion items of PPE were ordered by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). But of these only 11 billion have so far been distributed, while 12.6 billion are stored in the UK as central stock, and 8.4 billion on order from other parts of the world have still not arrived in the UK.

The stockpile is costing the DHSC about £6.7m a week to store, the PAC says, with waste being “unacceptably high”. As of May, 10,000 shipping containers of PPE still had to be unpacked, having been ordered in 2020, and 2.1 billion items had been found unsuitable for use in medical settings.

As of May, 10,000 shipping containers of PPE still had to be unpacked.
As of May, 10,000 shipping containers of PPE still had to be unpacked. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: “With eye-watering sums spent on Covid measures so far, the government needs to be clear, now, how this will be managed going forward, and over what period of time.

“The ongoing risk to the taxpayer will run for 20 years on things like arts and culture recovery loans, let alone the other new risks that departments across government must quickly learn to manage. As well as monitoring procurement and its effectiveness through the next few years, the PAC will be watching this spending and risk for decades to come. If coronavirus is with us for a long time, the financial hangover could leave future generations with a big headache.”

While examining the efficiency of the government response, the PAC highlights serious staffing problems inside the NHS, which have been brought into focus by the pandemic. The service was already struggling with 40,000 nursing and 9,000 medical staff vacancies before the first lockdown in March last year. By September, six months in, more than a third of remaining nurses were considering leaving.

The report warns that with the health and social care workforces “under constant pressure”, patient waiting times were continuing to increase and waiting lists for non-urgent treatment were growing significantly, storing up huge challenges for the future.

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