Ministers were told three years ago that Britain would be quickly overwhelmed by a severe pandemic, reports say. NHS hospitals and other services failed on a number of counts in a fictional outbreak scenario with ‘terrifying results’ that were kept from the public, according to The Daily Telegraph. 

In a ‘major cross government’ test codenamed Exercise Cygnus, the health service struggled with a shortage of critical care beds, morgue capacity and personal protective equipment (PPE), the paper reported.

Ministers were told that Britain would be quickly overwhelmed if a severe outbreak hit, but Whitehall officials deemed the findings from the October 2016 dry run ‘too sensitive’ to publish. 

The modelling was supplied by Imperial College London – the same group of academics now a the centre of tracking Covid-19 – and used a similar mortality rate to the current coronavirus.  Warning signs at a pharmacy in York.

London is building a new NHS Nightingale Hospital to cope with Covid-19.

According to The Telegraph, the government did not change its plan for a future pandemic, which was last updated in 2014.   The exercise also reportedly found that:   

  • The NHS lacked adequate ‘surge capacity’ and needed thousands of extra critical care beds to cope.
  • Mortuaries would be quickly overwhelmed.
  • Large parts of the health service would need to be ‘switched off’.
  • Frail patients would need to be denied critical care.
  • Officials discussed diverting midwives from delivering newborn babies to care for the critically ill.

The government has faced increasing scrutiny over the NHS’ capacity to cope with the current crisis, amid major concerns from experts. 

Officials insisted ‘serious lessons were learned’ from the exercise, but one anonymous official said: ‘It’s right to say that the NHS was stretched beyond breaking point by Cygnus’. The findings remain classified with officials citing ‘biosecurity concerns’ and a desire not to frighten the public as a reason for keeping the documents secret.

A spokeswoman for the health secretary at the time, Jeremy Hunt, insisted he had been well aware of the need for more intensive care beds and had successfully lobbied for an increase in the NHS budget. A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘The coronavirus outbreak calls for decisive action, at home and abroad, and the World Health Organisation recognises that the UK is one of the most prepared countries in the world for pandemic flu.

‘As the public would expect, we regularly test our pandemic plans and the learnings from previous exercises have helped allow us to rapidly respond to COVID-19.

‘We are committed to be as transparent as possible, and in publishing the SAGE evidence the public are aware of the science behind the government’s response.’

Around a year ago, the Northamptonshire Health and Wellbeing Board said: ‘A recent national exercise (Exercise Cygnus) highlighted in particular the need for further work to be done to improve local arrangements around anti-viral distribution, community level protection measures, personal protective equipment [PPE] and mass vaccination programmes.’

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