A SECRET disaster plan report warned Britain was “critically” underprepared for any deadly pandemic.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week declined to commit to publishing the outcome of the drill held in 2016.
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But The Sun can today reveal the findings of Exercise Cygnus, a three-day dry run for a mass outbreak of killer flu.
Crucially, personal protective equipment, ventilators and testing — three key areas where ministers have faced repeated criticism — barely featured or were not part of the exercise.
The simulation — involving ministers, the NHS, councils and public health bodies — revealed 22 key lessons to be learnt.
It now poses major questions for officials about the implementation of those recommendations.
Helen Shirley-Quirk, director for emergency preparedness and health protection policy at the Department for Health, shared the confidential outcome of the exercise with top officials in 2017.
She warned a pandemic represented the “most significant civil emergency risk” to the UK.
And she predicted: “The UK’s preparedness and response is not currently sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic of the type that would have a nationwide impact.”
The document — designed to save lives in the real-life pandemic we are now facing — was deemed too sensitive to be made public.
But we can reveal:
- There was no regard for testing or protective NHS clothing, or for ensuring enough ventilators.
- Concerns were raised that our social care system would not cope.
- The NHS would be told to focus its resources on saving the young and healthy.
- Urgent work was needed to help prisons manage.
- The impact of closing schools worried officials.
- The UK was not ready to deal with large-scale deaths, mass burials and a surge in the need for hospital beds.
- Charities and the voluntary sector would fill the cracks.
Failings of the Government
- SOCIAL CARE: Staff have struggled to get PPE and testing. Despite shielding, care home deaths are now estimated to be half of the 21,092 hospital fatalities.
- NHS PRIORITIES: A&E attendances have halved, with cancer, heart and stroke patients avoiding seeking treatment. There are fears this may be fuelling needless deaths.
- MANAGING DEATHS: Officials have been criticised for a lag in death reporting, particularly those in care homes. The UK is now on a worse trajectory for fatalities than Italy.
Modelling for the simulated outbreak was prepared by the same team at Public Health England that is tracking Covid-19.
The only significant difference between the cross-government test and the current pandemic was that Cygnus was assumed to be the H2N2 influenza virus.
Much like Covid-19, it spreads rapidly and triggers acute respiratory illness.
PPE was identified as an issue to focus on, with officials suggested “opening up more distribution points” — but the subject was not looked at again.
A poll earlier this week found three in four GPs fear for their lives because of inadequate equipment to protect against the virus.
And one in four have seen Covid-19 patients face-to-face without personal protective equipment.
The classified document also reveals little thought was given to the public’s reaction to key responses — such as mass burials and use of “population triage”, namely focusing on saving lives of the younger and fitter patients.
The risk of social care collapsing as more elderly were discharged into homes to free up beds was also flagged. But officials suggested the voluntary sector could help.
Vulnerable people reliant on private support from families and friends might be abandoned, the report stated.
Feedback from the exercise included an NHS Essex evaluation that the plans had “contradictions”.
A Kent report said preparations for excess deaths and prisons were “out of date”, and South Yorkshire ruled that there was “no overarching plan” among their local authorities.
It was also suggested that not including scientific experts in decision-making led to an “over-reliance on corporate memory”.
Failings of the report
- PPE: Despite shortages being a key problem during the outbreak, crucial protective kit for frontline workers is only mentioned once in the 57-page report.
- TESTING: Testing the public and frontline workers is a glaring omission from the drill. With the UK lagging behind much of the world, it is a main Government criticism.
The dossier found contradicting messages of “carry on as normal” and keep schools open, compared to the NHS cancelling surgery which led to the public fearing “the truth is being covered up”.
It called for security measures to be put in place when treatments became available amid fears of “public disorder”.
The report predicted NHS staffing levels could be hit by as much as half during a pandemic.
The Cabinet Office noted: “There may be a need to revisit the planning assumptions in this regard.”
Earlier in the Covid-19 outbreak, the Royal College of Physicians stated that one in every four NHS doctors is off work sick or in quarantine.
The exercise found the impact of school closures on society needed further investigation.
Retired teaching staff should return, with legislation needed to help them get back to work.
The 57-page report concluded: “The exercise did show that the UK’s capability to respond to a worst case pandemic influenza should be critically reviewed.”
The Government refused tonight to say whether it had implemented all of the Cygnus report’s 22 different recommendations on how to improve its response to a pandemic.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “As the public would expect, we regularly test our pandemic plans — allowing us to rapidly respond to this unprecedented crisis.
“Our planning helped prevent the NHS being overwhelmed and meant we are beginning to pass the peak of the virus.”
A government source added that ministers had been “extremely proactive in implementing lessons learnt around pandemic preparedness”.
That included being ready with new emergency laws, the rapid recruitment of retired staff and volunteers, and how to boost the NHS’s capacity.
The Global Health Security Index rated the UK as one of the most well prepared countries in the world for a pandemic, the source added.
The operation was conducted while Theresa May was Prime Minister and Jeremy Hunt was Health Secretary.
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