The pandemic has shown that government needs to improve the accuracy, completeness and interoperability of key datasets and how they are shared, according to a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO)
In a report on what can be learnt from the government’s response to Covid-19, which draws on 17 NAO reports already published, the auditor highlights how 375,000 clinically extremely vulnerable people sent letters advising them to shield did not receive a follow-up call because the NHS did not have an accurate telephone number for them. Although 870,000 such people were identified by the time shielding was announced on 22 March 2020, it took a further three weeks to identify 420,000 more because of problems extracting data from NHS and GP IT systems.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government was then not able to agree a system to collect data from local authorities on basic care provision for this group before the support programme ended in July 2020, with councils saying that bringing together data on work partly carried out voluntary groups was too much of a burden.
The NAO says the pandemic has led to some parts of government expanding the data they use in making decisions, including improved information on rough sleepers and from care providers. Work has also been carried out to improve the quality of some data, with NHS Test and Trace advised on this by the Office for National Statistics and the UK Statistics Authority.
But it criticised cases of government departments struggling to predict demand, such as for ventilator beds in March 2020 and for contract tracers, with NHS Test and Trace’s staff utilisation rate falling to 1% in August then rising as high as 56% in October. Test and Trace also failed to predict how many Covid-19 tests would be needed in September when schools and universities reopened meaning it failed to satisfy demand until the middle of that month.
As well as improved data-sharing and forecasting, the report says that government should by more systematic in gathering information from service users and frontline staff. It says HM Revenue and Customs made effective use of surveys to monitor the performance of its employment support schemes, but while NHS provider organisations said they received personal protection equipment when they needed it this was not the experience of some frontline health and care staff.
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