First real time audit of pandemic comes too late to hold government to account
Monday, 13 September 2021
Queuing for booster vaccination in Tel Aviv
The coronavirus crisis tested governments in all countries and made it even more important for them to act properly, efficiently and effectively to fight the pandemic and decide on imposing or easing lockdown measures. During the crisis, national supreme audit institutions played also an important role.
As previously reported, in the EU both the European Court of Auditors (ECA) and the supreme audit institutions (SAI) in the EU member states reacted swiftly to the evolving crisis and allocated substantial resources to assessing and auditing the response to the evolving crisis.
In most areas severely affected by the pandemic, the EU has only limited power to act, partly because competence for public health is not exclusive to the EU, and partly because there was little preparedness or initial consensus among member states on a common response. However, after a difficult start, the EU and member states improved their cooperation.
This state of affairs affected apparently also the SAIs that adapted their audit work programmes to include assignments of different types, such as advice, reviews, assessments and full-fledged audits, to address the problems that emerged during the crisis. Most of the audits were limited in scope but could be considered ‘real-time’ audits carried out while the situation and the events were unfolding.
A more comprehensive audit which also covered the government’s decision-making during the crisis was recently published by the State Comptroller Office of Israel.
The audit started already during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. Giving the importance of the interim findings in that audit and the added value of rectifying the shortcomings as quickly as possible, a report was published in October 2020. The final report was published in the middle of the fourth wave but came too late to serve as input to the new Israeli government’s handling of the crisis.
Considering the severe findings in the report relating to the previous government’s politicised handling of the crisis – under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – it came also too late to influence the parliamentary election that took place in March. Netanyahu lost the elections but if the findings would have been published before the elections, the outcome might have been less close.
“This audit is more relevant than ever and disclosed significant shortcomings,” said State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman in the foreword to the report. “We are now in a fourth wave and it’s important to rectify the deficiencies immediately.” Englman was elected to his post by the Parliament in June 2019 with the support of Netanyahu.
Besides chapters on the performance of different ministries, including the health ministry, and on education, welfare, health, and employment matters during the pandemic, the audit deals with the government’s decision-making process, including setting a strategy for exiting the first wave of the pandemic and preparing for the second wave last year.
As in EU member states, when the pandemic broke out in March 2020, the Israeli government acted according to emergency ordinances and it would take the parliament about 5 months to enact a special law giving the government the competencies required, under certain limitations, during the crisis.
A national project manager – Professor Ronni Gamzu, a physician, hospital director and former director-general of the health ministry – was appointed only at end July 2021 without knowing in advance what decision powers he would be given and whether the health ministry would agree to confer competencies to him.
After the lockdown restrictions (after the first wave) were lifted, there was a push for a return to normal and to allow almost all economic activities again, including the premature opening of schools, he said after his appointment. The current situation in Israel – after the successful vaccination campaign, including booster vaccination – is somewhat similar and the country is not yet out of the woods.
He did try to launch a new policy, such as a traffic-light plan for deciding on local lockdowns to avoid a nation-wide lockdown during the second wave – but it was never adopted by the government because of internal political pressures. What was reported then in the media is now confirmed in the audit report.
The audit included the prime-minister’s office but it does not say that the decision-making process was politicised and flawed. Whether the auditors had access to government protocols, that were classified during the crisis, is not clear.
The report is critical against how decisions were taken during the crisis by the government. “There was no proper control and monitoring procedure in the corona cabinet following the prime-minister’s and the government’s decisions and no lessons were learned at national level.” The lack of a state budget for 2020 impaired the budgetary handling of the crisis and the functioning of the ministry of finance.
As regards the crucial issue of handling passengers arriving in Israel, no solution was found to solving the problem of infections at the international Ben-Gurion airport. People were allowed to travel to red countries for political reasons and to avoid quarantine on their return to Israel. Neither was there any consistency between infection rates in the hardest hit municipalities and the enforcement of lockdown measures in those places.