Spending watchdog doubts UK is capable of managing Brexit and coronavirus info campaigns at the same time

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The government that spaffed £46m on an ineffective "Get Ready For Brexit" campaign is ill-prepared for managing public information about COVID-19 and the UK's departure from the EU at the same time, according to a committee of MPs.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), an influential public spending watchdog made up of a cross-party group of politicians, said the Cabinet Office could not show how the Get Ready For Brexit campaign led to people being better prepared for the UK leaving the bloc on October 31.

The UK did not, in fact, leave the EU on that date, and delayed its formal departure until January 31. In practice, little will change in the trading relationship until the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020.

The PAC says it is concerned about whether the Cabinet Office has the capacity to work effectively on both campaigns addressing the UK's practical departure from the EU at the end of the transition period, and the continuing campaign to manage COVID-19 at the same time.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, said: "The Government is taking the UK through not one but two incredible, unprecedented political and economic upheavals simultaneously, but it is business, the public and the public purse that will suffer if it gets it wrong.

"The Government has shown it could not fully successfully deliver one such campaign, before the pandemic disaster hit – in that case with a lot of money spent on the overarching message but less success on the detail which changes behaviour. With the nation's fortunes, livelihoods and even lives at stake, the Government must quickly give us confidence that it has learned the lessons and understands the scale of the task of running two campaigns like this, each much more complex and longer-term than either the coronavirus 'stay at home' or the original Brexit date messages."

The Cabinet Office did not start detailed planning for the [guidance for businesses on leaving the EU] campaign until the end of July 2019 and launched on September 1 – "just two months before the UK was expected to leave the EU…"

During the Get Ready For Brexit campaign, which had a possible budget of £100m, the Cabinet Office did not decide to monitor and evaluate its success at the outset. "Just two of the 26 priority actions identified for citizens and businesses had a measurable target at the start of the campaign to suggest what success might look like," the spending watchdog's report says.

Although businesses were crying out for government guidance on the UK's departure from the EU, the Cabinet Office did not start detailed planning for the campaign until the end of July 2019 and launched on September 1 – "just two months before the UK was expected to leave the EU… this left citizens and businesses with very little time to prepare," the report says.

The committee called on the Cabinet Office to offer "clear and specific assurance" within three months that business case analysis would drive its decision making and deliver better value for the taxpayer. Within a month, it should draw on a separate report from the National Audit Office to inform its own evaluation of the Brexit campaign. There should be broad agreement on the lessons learned, the PAC said. ®

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