Pandemic planning shambles: Hushed-up government drill on killer flu outbreak

A government pandemic response drill four years ago found that the UK was woefully under-prepared to fight a future outbreak, it was revealed last night.

The shortcomings exposed by Exercise Cygnus in 2016 included a lack of capacity in hospital and social care settings which risked becoming overwhelmed.

Checking Britain had a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment and ventilators, as well as assessing testing capacity, were reportedly both glaring omissions from the three-day simulation.

It once again asks hard questions as to why the country’s pandemic defences were not shored up ahead of the current coronavirus crisis despite repeated warnings.

Calls for the findings of Exercise Cygnus to be de-classified and made public have been deflected by the government in recent days.

But the bombshell report, which has been seen by the Sun, now puts pressure on ministers to explain why the advice was not acted upon.

An NHS worker with a fluid-resistant surgical mask

An NHS worker with a fluid-resistant surgical mask

A government pandemic response drill four years ago found that the UK was woefully under-prepared to fight a future outbreak, it was revealed last night (medical staff put on PPE at a testing centre) 

Whitehall departments, the NHS, health bodies and councils were all included in the nationwide mock test of how the UK would cope with a deadly disease.

A subsequent report made 22 recommendations and concluded ‘the UK’s capability to respond to a worst case pandemic influenza should be critically reviewed,’ according to the newspaper.

A source last night told MailOnline the government has ‘been extremely proactive in implementing lessons learnt around pandemic preparedness, including from Exercise Cygnus’. 

One of the holes uncovered by the exercise was an incapacity to deal with an influx in demand for hospital beds as cases soared.

At the start of the coronavirus crisis, the government was accused of being caught flat-footed as it raced to erect brand new Nightingale hospitals to expand capacity.  

Concerns were also raised on creaking social care capacity, the effects of closing schools and the impact on prisons, the Sun reports.

It also claims dispatching PPE to frontline staff was mentioned only once in the 57-page document. 

Members of the British Army wearing PPE work at a testing centre in Ebbsfleet, south London

Members of the British Army wearing PPE work at a testing centre in Ebbsfleet, south London

Members of the British Army wearing PPE work at a testing centre in Ebbsfleet, south London

NHS workers in PPE take a patient with an unknown condition to an ambulance at Queens Hospital in London

NHS workers in PPE take a patient with an unknown condition to an ambulance at Queens Hospital in London

NHS workers in PPE take a patient with an unknown condition to an ambulance at Queens Hospital in London

NHS and social care staff have been crying out for PPE in recent weeks amid alarming scenes from hospitals of medics forced to fashion makeshift gowns from curtains and bin bags.

Exercise Cygnus, which forecast a H2N2 influenza outbreak similar to Covid-19, took place under Theresa May’s premiership while Jeremy Hunt was Health Secretary.

A government spokesperson said: ‘As the public would expect we regularly test our pandemic plans and these exercises have enabled us to rapidly respond to this unprecedented global pandemic.

‘What we learned from these exercises helped us prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed and, now, start to pass through the peak of the virus. 

‘There is still more to do but our response will continue to be guided at all times by the best scientific advice.’

The government could face legal action if it does not publish the findings of Exercise Cygnus, lawyers have said.

Matt Hancock has been asked to release the findings of Exercise Cygnus (pictured speaking at the Downing Street press briefing yesterday)

Matt Hancock has been asked to release the findings of Exercise Cygnus (pictured speaking at the Downing Street press briefing yesterday)

Matt Hancock has been asked to release the findings of Exercise Cygnus (pictured speaking at the Downing Street press briefing yesterday)

NHS doctor and campaigner Dr Moosa Qureshi is demanding the results, which have not been made public, of the drill.

Law firm Leigh Day, which represents Dr Qureshi, said an urgent pre-action letter has been sent to Health Secretary Matt Hancock asking for a response by 4pm on Monday.

He will seek a judicial review if Mr Hancock does not disclose the Cygnus findings or give ‘adequate reasons’ for the refusal, his lawyers said.

Dr Qureshi said: ‘There is no persuasive argument for secrecy when managing a healthcare crisis.

‘Successful science and healthcare provision depend on transparency, peer review, collaboration and engagement with the public.

‘I believe that if the Government had followed the Cygnus exercise by engaging transparently with health and social care partners, with industry and with the public, then many of the deaths of my heroic healthcare colleagues and the wider public during the Covid-19 pandemic could have been avoided.

‘For this reason, I strongly believe that we need to see transparency throughout the entire process of preparation and delivery of care during this pandemic, including the social care sector and NHS Nightingale hospitals.’ 

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