IT is unclear how well Covid funding reached “those who most needed it” or the impact it had, according to a report by Scotland’s public spending watchdog.

Audit Scotland said it was “hard to see how some financial decisions were reached” during the pandemic and that it is “not straightforward” to track how much of the extra cash provided by the Scottish Government to councils and other public bodies has actually been spent.

The Scottish Government received £14.4 billion in Covid‑19 Barnett consequentials from the UK Treasury during the pandemic, has announced £15.7 billion of Covid-related spending to date, and reported estimated actual pandemic spending of £11.8 billion up to December 2021.

A further update on Covid spending is due later this month.

HeraldScotland:

Audit Scotland urged the Scottish Government to evaluate whether its Covid-19 spending delivered the desired outcomes and allow for greater scrutiny on its decisions.

Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland, said: “The Scottish Government and public bodies worked well together to distribute money during the pandemic, but lessons should be learned to improve planning for any future large-scale disruptions.

“It is vital for transparency and financial planning that the Scottish Government and other public bodies are clear about how one-off Covid-19 funding is being spent, including money in reserves.

“More work is also needed by the Scottish Government to collect the data that will allow it to understand the difference its interventions have made and plan the country’s recovery from Covid.”

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Collaboration at pace in “difficult circumstances” between the Scottish Government and the UK and local governments is acknowledged in the publication, but it said it is “critical that lessons are learned about what worked well, and what did not” in order to improve responses in the future.

The Scottish Government managed its overall Covid-19 budget “effectively”, the report said, but some funding still remains unspent, and more work is required by the Scottish Government to demonstrate how the wide range of spending measures worked together to address the harms caused by the pandemic.

HeraldScotland:

Auditors also highlighted questions around the time lag between new Covid-related funding being announced by the Scottish Government and the cash reaching those it was intended to support, stating that they were “unable to determine any overall statistics about the time taken for funds to reach recipients”.

The “pace at which recipients were able to access Covid‑19 support should be a key component of any evaluation by the Scottish Government and its delivery partners” as this would “provide assurance that the higher-level risk accepted to distribute funds quickly was worthwhile”.

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The time between a funding announcement, the application process opening, and the first payment being made varied from 15 days for the £120 million Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund for small and medium-sized businesses, to 119 days for the £25m Ventilation Fund which reimbursed businesses for upgrading their air systems.

Andrew McRae, Scotland policy chair for the Federation of Small Businesses, said any leftover funding could be reallocated to firms struggling with overheads.

“New financial help for firms to tackle rising energy costs could help businesses that survived the Covid crisis thrive in the future,” he said.

HeraldScotland:

Overall, the £3.4 billion allocated in 2020/21 for Covid-19 business support, including non-domestic rates relief, exceeded the £1.45bn spent on all other Covid support combined, including PPE, Test & Protect, the NHS Louisa Jordan, social care, primary care, mental health services, communities’ hardship fund, free school meals and community food, rail support, and digital inclusion for learning.

Scottish Labour spokeswoman for Covid recovery Jackie Baillie said the public “deserves to know exactly what happened” to unspent money that was set aside for the pandemic response.

She said: “The SNP’s economic mismanagement has left public finances in total chaos, but even as they forge ahead to cut services to the bone we still don’t know what happened to billions of pounds of Covid money.”

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes said ministers will “carefully consider” Audit Scotland’s report, adding: “At every stage, the Scottish Government worked to safeguard lives, businesses, jobs and livelihoods, acting as quickly and efficiently as possible to support people and businesses.

“Despite the impacts of the pandemic, many of which are still being acutely felt, we worked collaboratively with all sectors of the economy to identify those most in need and then with local authorities and partners to utilise existing systems to ensure financial support was delivered swiftly and effectively.