Preparing for the impact of a no-deal Brexit later this year would overwhelm local emergency response teams exhausted by the Covid-19 pandemic, a leaked Whitehall report has warned.
A review by a committee set up to review the response to coronavirus said failing to seek an extension to Brexit negotiations threatened to “compound Covid-19 with a second UK societal-wide, economic and social, chronic threat”.
The government made it clear that it will not seek an extension to the Brexit transition period on 31 December – but the leaked report, published by the Municipal Journal, said this threatened to “overwhelm” local disaster planning capacity.
One respondent said: “We are currently in an unprecedented national emergency that will have health, economic, social and political impacts for years to come. The responder community is exhausted – floods, Novichok, terrorism, Brexit preparations, etc. The last thing we need is a no-deal Brexit.
“If we are to do recovery properly we do not have the space to start scaling-up a Brexit response too. This needs to be fed into HM government thinking now. This isn’t pro/anti-Brexit – it is about being sensible for the recovery process and the health and wellbeing of our responders.”
Another said: “Dare I mention Brexit and the likely LRF [local resilience forum] role – there is a real danger of LRF burnout.”
The 76-page report marked “official/sensitive” was drawn up by the C-19 Foresight group, a cross-government team which supports local resilience forums in England and Wales. The 42 regional LRFs are tasked with planning and responding to major incidents and catastrophic events.
The Brexit warnings came out of broader discussions with over 200 local police, fire, NHS and council services around whether LRFs could effectively manage the pandemic if the country was hit by a simultaneous emergency on a large scale, such as major flooding.
One contributor to the review said: “A concurrent emergency of any nature would overwhelm resources, albeit I have no doubt we would endeavour to continue delivering, but at what cost?”
Another warned: “This could be a real challenge given the public may expect our ‘typical’ level of response to a major incident yet we may be operating under strict social distancing and PPE [personal protective equipment] requirements – both of which may hinder our ability to provide our usual standards of service in relation to incident response.”
There was a widespread feeling that LRFs must be properly funded by the government and could no longer rely on the goodwill of local partners alone. There was frustration that during the current crisis they had been at the back of the queue for key resources.
One respondent said: “The NHS are understandably a priority, but other key agencies, particularly those attending deaths in the community (police, fire, medics, funeral directors) have had difficulties in accessing PPE. It’s not just PPE, there has been a critical shortage of body bags, with suppliers providing them at 10 times the normal price.”
The review expanded on concerns over the government’s controlling approach and failure to communicate vital Covid-19 information and intelligence to local response teams, which first emerged in a shorter version of the report highlighted by the Guardian last week.
It said LRFs felt isolated from national decision-making and were unable to effectively plan their response, adding: “Where there was sharing of data and guidance from central government, the way in which it was managed appeared to create additional confusion.”
There was frustration that local emergency teams often only found about government plans when they read about them in the press. One respondent said: “Government needs to actually consult about what is planned, not simply announce something at a press conference and expect it to work the next day.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “Councils, local resilience forums and other local partners are doing invaluable work in their communities across the country with support from government. They are a highly trusted and valued community which has regular contact with ministers and officials.
“We share information from across government along with key data on a daily basis and will continue to work closely with them to understand any pressures they are facing in their important work so they can make the appropriate plans for their local areas.
“We left the EU with a deal on 31 January this year. We have worked closely with local resilience forums and local government to ensure a smooth transition and we are well prepared to support them as we look towards the end of the transition period.”