The impact of COVID-19 on public services

Jun 30, 2020

Public Sector Elective Lecturer Suzanne Walsh examines the impact of the pandemic on public services.

The global COVID-19 pandemic presents the most challenging set of circumstances that public services in the UK and Ireland have faced in recent history. The health and economic implications have been far-reaching, and public services have been severely stretched to maintain business as usual.

Supporting the economy has presented one of the most significant challenges. Public services have responded in several ways to provide financial assistance to:

  • support the health service to ensure that it is equipped to deliver care during the pandemic;
  • ensure that essential services are maintained, including emergency response services, prisons and education;
  • provide support to businesses; and
  • provide support to members of the public currently facing hardship because of the pandemic.

All this support has been necessary for both economic and social reasons; however, it has come at a considerable cost to the public purse: at the time of writing, the Northern Ireland Executive has announced the allocation of approximately £975 million in direct response to COVID-19. Some of the headline figures included within this package of financial support are:

  • £355 million for health;
  • £270 million in small business grants;
  • £99 million for a three-month business rate holiday,
  • £49.45 million for the Department of Communities for a range of interventions including food boxes and support for the homeless and vulnerable; and
  • £18.9 million in payments to families of the 97,000 families entitled to free school meals.

To put this in context, this equates to almost 10% of the total budget for Northern Ireland in 2019–20.

Public services have been under tremendous pressure to administer schemes set up to address the impacts of COVID-19 while at the same time maintaining business as usual operations. Cross-government working and stakeholder engagement has never been more important. Clearly, there has been a strong emphasis on ensuring that those who need financial support at this time receive it as a matter of urgency. This also creates implications for some of the most important principles of accountability and good governance in the public sector, including ensuring that regularity, propriety, and value for money are achieved. From an examination perspective, candidates should ensure they are familiar with the principles of good governance and public sector concepts such as regularity, propriety, and value for money (economy, efficiency and effectiveness).

Given the uncertainties around the health impacts of the pandemic and the availability of a vaccine, it is difficult for governments to forecast the likely future financial implications of the pandemic accurately. Still, it is likely to continue to have implications for public spending and service delivery for some time. Candidates should bear this in mind when drawing conclusions, as spending proposals will be competing for finite resources and will need to be supported by a robust business case. The role of the Chief Finance Officer will be vitally important in ensuring that the principles of good governance are followed; that spending decisions are based on well-informed forecasts, and that performance is measured.

The pandemic has also had a significant impact on how the public sector conducts its business. Public sector employees not directly involved in delivering essential front-line services have been mobilised to work from home, and this presents different challenges for those impacted. Juggling working from home with homeschooling has become the norm for a great number of families. Like so many other public sector bodies, the staff at NIAO have been working from home since mid-March, and we have been progressing our audit work remotely. As a result, we have placed a strong reliance on technology to obtain audit evidence and to maintain contact with our staff and stakeholders.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has presented significant challenges for our health service and the economy, but it has also impacted each and every one of us on a personal level. There will undoubtedly be a lengthy period of recovery at the end of the pandemic, and audit will have an important role to play in identifying both good practice and lessons that we can all learn from. The relationship between audit and an organisation’s Chief Finance Officer will be key in ensuring that recommendations for improvement are well-embedded in public sector organisations. Hopefully, it will enable us to generate some positive outcomes from our experiences during this pandemic. However, I am sure that all of us hope never to experience anything of this magnitude again in our lifetime!