UK was not prepared for worst-case pandemic scenario, leaked report reveals

A secret Whitehall document produced years before the coronavirus outbreak forecast the UK was ill-prepared to deal with a health pandemic, it has emerged.

The analysis, codenamed Exercise Cygnus, was based on a 2016 simulation of a flu pandemic involving all levels of national, regional and local government, police and other organisations.

It 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 the social care system would be able to provide the level of support needed in the event of a serious outbreak.

The Cygnus document 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."

It comes as First Secretary of State Dominic Raab confirmed during the daily press briefing on Thursday that a "very significant issue" remains in care homes.

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."

The document analysing the efficacy of the simulation identified four key lessons, including to be more prepared for a pandemic by better understanding 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 if a pandemic was to be declared.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

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

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".

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.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

"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."

Latest figures from the Department of Health show 30,615 people have died in hospitals, care homes and the wider community after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on Wednesday.

But the number of deaths involving Covid-19 that have been registered across the UK currently stands at 32,898.

These come amid long-running concerns about a lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) among front-line health workers and care home staff, as well as worries over the Government's testing capabilities.

NHS doctor and campaigner Dr Moosa Qureshi, who has threatened to start legal proceedings against the Government over its failure to publish the Cygnus findings, said "many questions remain unanswered".

He said: "Most importantly of all, what can we learn from Exercise Cygnus to help us address the UK Government's failed management strategy and prepare us for a second wave of the pandemic?"