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Report: Government may never know exactly how much was spent on Covid

Damning: the Public Accounts Committee ound a number of faults in the way the Government responded to the Covid-19 pandemic (File photograph)

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed a catalogue of flaws in the way the Government responded to the crisis, according to an independent report.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Public Accounts found administrative “gaps”, poor coordination between ministries, outdated laws, no plans or training in crisis management, and a lack of business continuity plans.

The committee also concluded that the full cost of the virus will most likely never be known because “no special payment instructions were documented and there was no indication that the Code of Practice was in place”.

The committee was chaired by Opposition One Bermuda Alliance leader Cole Simons and was made up of four other MPs – Neville Tyrrell and Jache Adams for the Government, and Susan Jackson and Jarion Richardson for the Opposition.

It reviewed a number of reports by the Auditor-General and carried out further interviews with a slew of senior civil servants, taking “a deep dive” into timelines and responses from the onset of the virus through to “post-pandemic business as usual”.

Under the heading ‘Response and Communications’ the report stated: “No plans or training had been in place or previously carried out as a matter of regular crisis management at the ministerial or departmental levels.

“There were no formal business continuity plans to follow as a guide under health emergency circumstances.

“The Health Ministry did divulge a pandemic emergency plan, started with SARS, but little evidence was provided by the ministry to demonstrate much of the plan was familiar to government employees or that any of the existing pandemic emergency plan was executed by the Ministry of Health at the onset of Covid.”

The committee also found that the Ministry of Health and the Attorney-General’s chambers were placed under “incredible pressure to draft, table, debate, and pass legislative amendments to address the public health emergency”.

Focusing on the financial cost of the pandemic, the report said: “The Accountant-General’s office had no play book. There was insufficient crisis management and business continuity planning.

“There is an existing and operational crisis management system, but there’s no evidence this system was fit for purpose or used as a tool at the onset of Covid 19.”

Referring to purchases of medical equipment, the report noted: “The waiver process was compromised. Advisory services incomplete with technical officers on record documenting duplicate and multiple purchases for supplies not needed (eg hazmat suits).

“Unfortunately, approvals were waived for spending, leaving no recourse for unsubstantiated purchases. Charge codes designed for Covid spending were not adopted by ministries.

“Emergency protocols were put in place, but ministry personnel were unaware, or the emergency protocols were ‘not Covid friendly’.

“Consequently, Government and auditors may never know exactly how much was spent on Covid or related expenses.”

The report noted that senior personnel turnover was “quite high” in the first two years of Covid, adding: “Unfortunately, newly appointed Permanent Secretaries, Directors or other senior positions were given insufficient formal handover instructions, and insufficient historical background, records or files of activities, decisions, and processes adapted for Covid administration.

“There was no evidence of accountability for nonperformance.

In addition, other deficiencies highlighted include: weekly management meetings had no formal minutes on record; emergency budget was not established through the Ministry of Finance; no special payment instructions were documented; and there was no indication that the Code of Practice was in place.

“Only Cabinet conclusions and ministerial approvals on spends over $100k were formally recorded.”

The document also claimed that the Government was the victim of price gouging.

It stated: “Efforts were made to avoid high prices, but Bermuda and other countries fell victim without prior procurement mechanisms in place for such supplies.

“A better job should have been done when screening and checking vendor identification and anti-money laundering risks on suppliers and vendors, ie verifying company identity and business addresses, banking details, and business reputation research.”

“The full cost of the Covid pandemic from the onset in March 2020 to date has not been accurately quantified by all Government ministries.

“Cost centres and cost structures were not identified by each ministry. There was no distinct cost centre or identifier recorded on each Ministry’s books or financial statements, as these costs in many cases were buried within other expenses of each ministry.

“The problem was exacerbated by the fact that each ministry was operating in its own silo.”

The report concluded with a list of recommendations, suggesting that an external auditor should be drafted in to monitor spending during an emergency.

It also stated that the Accountant-General’s office should include staff with national emergency skill sets, more real-time audits should be introduced, and the Government’s Information Technology department need to improve.

• For the full report, see under related media.

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Published February 07, 2023 at 9:56 am (Updated February 07, 2023 at 9:56 am)

Report: Government may never know exactly how much was spent on Covid

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