£6.2 billion and still rising – cost of pandemic revealed
The cost of responding to Covid-19 in Northern Ireland has risen to more than £6.2 billion, according to a new Audit Office report.
The report by Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly estimated that the cost to Stormont departments of a range of measures to combat the impact of the pandemic was £3.9 billion, and the cost of Westminster schemes which apply to Northern Ireland was £2.3 billion at March 31 this year.
Mr Donnelly said that three-quarters of the total Stormont Executive spend was across three departments: £1.06 billion by the Department of Health working at the frontline; £1.03 billion by the Department of Finance offering rate reliefs for individuals and businesses; and £0.95 billion by the Department of the Economy offering support to local businesses.
The Westminster expense includes £1.5 billion covering the Northern Ireland cost of the furlough scheme.
The audit report also says that ministerial directions, where individual ministers direct civil servants to proceed with expenditure despite concerns over value for money, were used more times during the pandemic than in the previous decade.
The report makes no assessment of the value for money of individual measures.
Mr Donnelly said: “February 2021 marked the anniversary of the first confirmed Covid-19 case in Northern Ireland.
“One year on and the pandemic continues to have a significant impact on our lives.
“Hospitals have been operating at almost full capacity and many non-Covid-19 related services (including cancer services) have had to be postponed.
“The impact on our economy has been profound with a drop in economic output of around 10% over 2020.
“Wellbeing has suffered as we comply with restrictions and tragically, many lives have been lost.”
Mr Donnelly added: “There will undoubtedly be important lessons to learn, and this report provides my office with the basis for a programme of work evaluating how public money has been spent during this period.”
The auditor said he has now commenced separate reviews of three Covid-related expenditure schemes: the arrangements surrounding the supply of personal protective equipment in Northern Ireland; the provision of grants through the Small Business Grant Scheme; and the administration of the Sports Sustainability Grant Scheme.
The Audit Office report also revealed that ministerial directions were used 27 times during the pandemic to approve spending decisions against the advice of senior civil servants.