Cost of Covid-19 response in Northern Ireland over £7.79bn, Audit Office report says
The cost of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic in Northern Ireland is estimated to have reached more than £7.79 billion, a new Audit Office report has found.
The report said that lessons needed to be learnt from the pandemic spending to ensure that Stormont departments are well placed to deal with similar situations in the future.
Auditor general, Dorinnia Carville, has published the third in a series of overview reports summarising the Northern Ireland Executive’s expenditure in response to the public health emergency.
It said recent estimates of the total cost of UK Government Covid-19 measures range from £310 billion to £410 billion. In Northern Ireland, the total estimated cost is more than £7.79 billion.
The report said that at the end of March 2023, the spend by Northern Ireland government departments on measures to combat the impact of the pandemic was estimated to be £4.94 billion.
The other £2.85 billion was spent on national schemes which applied to Northern Ireland, including an estimated £1.72 billion covering the cost of 287,100 Northern Ireland employments furloughed by September 30 2021.
Almost 75% of the total estimated cost of Northern Ireland initiatives related to activities across three departments – £1.59 billion in the Department of Health on the pandemic response, £1.08 billion in the Department of Finance offering rates relief and other support to businesses, and £0.97 billion in the Department for the Economy.
The report highlights the growth during the pandemic of ministerial directions. This is where ministers direct accounting officers to proceed with a spending proposal despite concerns that the spending may breach regularity or propriety principles or may represent poor value for money.
The report said: “During the period from March 2020 to 28 October 2022 (when caretaker ministers were no longer in post), 51 Covid-19 related ministerial directions were issued.
“This is more than the total number of ministerial directions issued in the previous 10 years.
“The majority were in the Department for the Economy and the Department of Health.
“The ministerial directions represented an estimated £1.4 billion of budgeted expenditure.”
The report said auditors recognised that in the early stages of the pandemic, ministers needed to make urgent decisions.
It added: “It is crucial that lessons are learned from the response to the pandemic, evaluating the impact of spending, identifying what worked well, or did not work, and building on those lessons to ensure organisations are well placed to react when faced with other emergencies in the future.”
The report also identifies several lessons for departments on the use of self-declarations as a means of determining eligibility, the need for cross-departmental co-operation, and the importance of incorporating recovery and clawback arrangements to address potential error or fraud.
Ms Carville said: “Work is ongoing to evaluate the impact of the Northern Ireland Executive’s response to the pandemic and the financial support provided.
“While many of the lessons identified in this report can be attributed, at least partially, to the pace at which initiatives were delivered, it is crucial that these lessons are learned.
“Evaluating the impact of spending, identifying what worked well, or did not work, and building on this insight will help to ensure organisations are well placed to react when faced with other emergencies in the future.
“Oversight by the NICS (Northern Ireland Civil Service) board is key to ensuring lessons are learned, shared widely and, where necessary, that processes are improved and embedded.”