UK was insufficiently prepared for pandemic, secret document reveals

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A secret Whitehall document condemning the UK’s “insufficient” preparedness for a health pandemic such as the coronavirus outbreak has been published.

The analysis, based on a 2016 simulation of a flu pandemic, codenamed Exercise Cygnus, identified a “lack of joint tactical-level plans” for a public health emergency, with demand for services outstripping local capacity.

The 57-page Public Health England report, leaked to The Guardian, also identified concerns about the expectation that the social care system would be able to provide the level of support needed in the event of a serious outbreak.

Latest figures from the Department of Health showed 30,076 people had died in hospitals, care homes and the wider community after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK, as of 5pm on Tuesday.

It is the highest death toll in Europe, amid long-running concerns about a lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) among frontline health workers and care home staff, as well as worries over the Government’s testing capabilities.

The Cygnus drill document found the possible impacts of a pandemic were not universally understood across Whitehall.

It said: “The UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic that will have a nationwide impact across all sectors.”

Ministers have acknowledged the presence of the Cygnus report throughout the coronavirus pandemic, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock telling reporters last month that “everything that was appropriate to do was done”.

The exercise, which lasted less than a week, involved participants responding to a dummy pandemic scenario in real time, engaging with the press and communicating messages to the public.

The document analysing the efficacy of the simulation identified four key lessons, including to be more prepared for a pandemic by better understanding of how the public would react to a worst-case scenario health crisis.

It also stated the Government was “lacking” the capability and capacity to surge resources into key areas were a pandemic to be declared.

A further 22 recommendations included:

– The Department of Health working with others to develop a strategy for using antivirals in a pandemic

– Better planning among all state organisations to cope with potential staff absences

– Developing communication plans to inform the public during a health crisis

– The Department for Education carrying out a study into the impact of school closures on society

– Exploring the role of the military in such circumstances

– Seeing if social care provision, both in terms of staffing and capacity, could be expanded in a “worst-case scenario pandemic”

– Government departments working together consider how they would cope with excess deaths

The report said 957 representatives representing national, regional and local level officials took part in the exercise drill, including people from all developed administrations, and representatives from NHS regions, Public Health England, and police and local authority personnel from across the country.

Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, the largest representative body for independent providers of adult social care, said: “From what we understand this document set out a range of questions and actions that if they had been followed may have left us in a much better position to navigate the current health emergency.

“It would be really helpful if this document was put into the public domain as many of the key messages may still be helpful in today’s pandemic.”

Liz Kendall, the shadow social care minister, said Exercise Cygnus “provided clear warnings” about a lack of preparedness for a pandemic, particularly in social care.

She said: “These warnings have now proved all too sadly true as the unfolding tragedy in our care homes shows.

“Care providers confirm they were not involved in subsequent discussions on how to put these problems right.

“Ministers must be clear about why they failed to act on the report’s recommendations and what they will now do to fully protect and resource these vital services in future.”

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