This is how much the government’s COVID response cost each person in the UK

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 17: Britain's Chancellor Rishi Sunak, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance arrive for a press conference about the ongoing situation with the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak inside 10 Downing Street on March 17, 2020 in London, England. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (Photo by Matt Dunham - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson were responsible for COVID spending in 2020. (Getty Images)

What's happening? Earlier this month he was under fire over his net zero U-turn.

Earlier this week there was also his potential axing of a HS2 line (not to mention his home secretary’s controversial speech about refugees).

Today, the issue plaguing Rishi Sunak is taxes.

That's because the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has released a report saying the current Parliament - led by Sunak’s Conservative government - will have presided over the biggest set of tax rises since at least the Second World War. By the next general election, taxes will likely have risen to around 37% of national income.

It’s extremely uncomfortable territory for the Tories, traditionally the party of low taxes. And it has gone on the defensive.

Treasury minister Andrew Griffith, appearing on Sky News, blamed the rises on the coronavirus pandemic: “The context is incredibly important. We’ve had this global pandemic, no one saw it coming and we had to spend a very significant amount of money, about £8,000 to £12,000 for a household of two people… that’s what’s driven up the tax burden.”

However, a piece of “context” that Griffith didn’t mention was the amount of money wasted by the government during the pandemic.

Here, Yahoo News UK sets out what was spent... and what was wasted.

How much did COVID spending cost per person?

Varying estimates of COVID spending per person. (House of Commons Library)
Varying estimates of COVID spending per person. (House of Commons Library)

There is no arguing Griffith’s point that the government was forced to spend “a very significant amount of money” during the worst of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

For example, extra spending was needed to support the NHS at a time when the virus was making tens of thousands of people seriously ill. Another policy was the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, in which the government paid 80% of the wages of any furloughed employee.

According to research published by the House of Commons Library earlier this month, current estimates of the total cost of COVID measures range from £310bn to £410bn.

This is the equivalent of between £4,631 to £6,067 per person in the UK, depending on different estimates (see chart, above).

The report added that in 2020/21, spending was £179bn higher than had been planned before the pandemic hit.

So, how much did the government waste?

A nurse wearing PPE during the height of the pandemic. It emerged earlier this year that the government wasted billions on PPE which hasn't been used. (PA)
A nurse wearing PPE during the height of the pandemic. It emerged earlier this year that the government wasted billions on PPE which hasn't been used. (PA)

According to a National Audit Office (NAO) report in January, the Department of Health has spent £14.9bn on unused personal protective equipment (PPE) and other items such as medication and vaccines.

Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said it was “staggering” such an amount - “enough to fund the police force for an entire year” - had been “wasted on useless” equipment.

In June last year, the House of Commons Public Account Committee (PAC) said the government planned to burn £4bn of unusable PPE, with Streeting saying the “money is now literally going up in smoke”.

Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said the £14.9bn figure “is another reminder to Whitehall about the vital importance of proper controls in public procurement, including during a crisis”.

Meanwhile, the NAO said in March that the government lost £7.3bn to fraud and error relating to temporary COVID policies such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. It suggested this could have been reduced with better standards of "public accountability"

It said: "Government needed to respond quickly to the unfolding pandemic. It often did so by prioritising speed when setting up these new initiatives over reducing the risk of fraud and corruption and diverted compliance and counter-fraud staff away from their normal roles."

It added "basic standards of public accountability...could have [been] maintained", even at the height of the pandemic. It suggested increased transparency to Parliament and better management of conflicts of interest. There have been a number of PPE contract scandals relating to Tory figures.

What are the other parties saying about the tax rises?

WORMLEY, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 25: British Prime Minster Rishi Sunak speaks during an interview at Wormley Community Centre on September 25, 2023 in Wormley, England. (Photo by Hollie Adams - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak is under pressure over high taxes. (Getty Images)

In light of Griffith's comments about COVID spending and tax rises, Yahoo News UK approached the Labour Party and SNP, as well as the TaxPayers' Alliance, but didn't receive a response.

Meanwhile, Tax Watch, an independent think tank dedicated to "compliance with and sound administration of tax law", said it didn't want to comment.

However, Sarah Olney, the Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesperson, said in response to today's IFS report: “This is the same party which promised not to raise people's taxes and is now taxing families through the nose.

“Despite this, ministers have given tax cuts to the big banks, failed to close loopholes in the windfall tax on oil and gas giants and wasted eye watering sums on dodgy PPE contracts."

The Treasury said it is focused on "driving down inflation", which is "the most effective tax cut we can deliver right now".

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