Covid-19 has revealed fundamental weaknesses in our public services
Many public services entered the pandemic with low resilience and simply did not have the capacity to respond to a crisis, writes Baroness Armstrong | PA Images
Public service providers rapidly redesigned their services to meet the unprecedented challenges of Covid, but the public health response was hampered by over-centralised, poorly coordinated and poorly communicated policies.
The House of Lords Public Services Committee’s first report found, the formidable work of frontline public service workers and leaders saw innovation flourish during the pandemic.
Across the country, public service providers rapidly redesigned their services to meet unprecedented challenges. At the national level, the NHS rapidly upscaled its acute care capacity with the construction of Nightingale hospitals; at the local level, 15,000 rough sleepers were safely accommodated, and many had access to addiction and mental health services for the first time.
Digital technology was used more widely, and more successfully, than ever before, with service providers introducing technology to reach isolated groups. Charities and the voluntary sector played an essential role in ensuring that services continued to be delivered to communities everywhere. We were particularly impressed by the role that councils played in facilitating new partnerships between public services and the third sector at the local level.
It was inspiring to hear directly from members of the public about how they had benefited from these changes. But we also heard that without urgent action by the Government to lock in these innovations, all this good work risks being lost.
That’s because Covid-19 also revealed fundamental weaknesses in our public services. The overall public health response was at times hampered by over-centralised, poorly coordinated and poorly communicated policies that were designed and delivered by central Government, even though local-level providers were often better equipped to support their communities.
BAME people and those living in deprived areas have paid a terrible price for the historical underfunding of preventative health services and unequal access to services
And it’s now clear that the pandemic further disadvantaged communities who were already left behind. BAME people and those living in deprived areas have paid a terrible price for the historical underfunding of preventative health services and unequal access to services. Per capita deaths from Covid-19 among Black Caribbean people were almost three times those of White British people.
Collaboration between service providers was often found wanting. Many do not share crucial data on people’s needs. Before Covid-19, central government, schools, social workers and justice services were not working together effectively to identify and protect vulnerable children.
The Children’s Commissioner’s Office estimated that 829,000 vulnerable children were ‘invisible’ to public services and therefore not getting any support before the pandemic. This number is likely to have risen significantly. And addiction, domestic violence and mental health issues in families have all increased during the crisis.
Many public services entered the pandemic with low resilience and simply did not have the capacity to respond to a crisis. The adult social care sector was woefully unprepared; a lack of adequate PPE and testing led to the tragic deaths of thousands of older and disabled people.
This is why the Committee has called on government to recognise the role of preventative services in reducing the deep and ongoing inequalities that have been exacerbated by Covid-19. To give frontline and local services the resources and autonomy they need to integrate at local level, collaborate with the voluntary sector, and address the failings in data-sharing exposed by the pandemic.
We were disappointed that the government declined to appear before the Committee. We hope the government and public service leaders will recognise the urgency of the issues we have identified in the report.
Our findings should be the starting point for a programme of fundamental reform, to ensure that our public services are resilient in the face of future crises, and that they work for all communities across the country.
Baroness Armstrong is a Labour member of the House of Lords and chair of the Lords Public Services Committee.
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