Official report that said UK was not prepared for pandemic is published | World news

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A report into Exercise Cygnus, a 2016 government war-game of how Britain would respond to a flu pandemic, has been published following repeated calls for it to be made public.

The report, a version of which was leaked to the Guardian in May, said that the UK was not prepared for a pandemic and warned of a crisis in care homes.

Exercise Cygnus simulated an outbreak of fictitious “swan flu” and recruited 950 ministers, officials and civil servants to role-play how the machinery of government would cope with the pressures of a major outbreak of a novel disease.

What was Exercise Cygnus?

Exercise Cygnus was a government simulation of a flu pandemic, carried out to wargame the UK’s pandemic preparedness. It was carried out in 2016 and involved 950 officials from central and local government, as well as emergency response planners, responding to an imaginary outbreak of “swan flu”. A report of the exercise was compiled the following year.

What did it involve?

Taking place over three days in October, participants were asked to imagine a fictitious “worst-case scenario” flu pandemic, affecting up to 50% of the population and causing up to 400,000 excess deaths.

Officials were told to assume they were managing week 7 of the government’s response. The objective of such simulations is to test how existing plans would hold up under strain, while acclimatising ministers and officials to the kind of decisions they would be forced to make.

What did it find?

The report warned that the government’s flu plans, at least in 2016, were “currently not sufficient” to tackle a severe flu pandemic. Some organisations’ plans were out of date and referred to cooperation with other bodies that no longer existed.

In other instances plans were in place, but were found to be lacking or required elaborating. Warnings were made about the inability of the social care sector to struggle with the serious pressure that a pandemic would cause.

What did it recommend?

Cygnus makes 26 recommendations to the department of health and other bodies. Among them were the suggestion that further modelling be done to understand the capacity of the care sector, the creation of a joint-level tactical plan to ensure different organisations could interact more effectively, and that more work needed to be done to understand how the public would respond to interventions by the government.

What does the government say?

The government has claimed to have implemented the recommendations of the Cygnus report in full. In an interview with LBC the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said that after media reports of the simulation emerged, health officials assured him that its recommendations were followed. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said the UK was among the countries of the world best prepared for a flu pandemic, and that the government tested its flu plans regularly.

The report of the simulation warned in blunt terms that “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”.

After the existence of the Cygnus simulation was reported by the Telegraph earlier this year, the government insisted that it had acted on the report’s recommendations.

However, the report was kept secret, and senior figures in the care sector, which was the subject of specific warnings in the document, told the Guardian its findings had never been raised with them.

The government’s publication of the Cygnus report marks a belated recognition that a document previously hyped as “too terrifying” for public consumption can in fact be made available for widespread distribution.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has for months resisted publishing the document itself. Requests for the document under the Freedom of Information Act have been declined on the grounds that it related to the formulation of government policy, an exemption under the act.

In June, almost six months after the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern, the government health minister Lord Bethell told the House of Lords that reports of Cygnus-style simulations had to remain secret “so that the unthinkable can be thought”.

It is not clear why the government adopted the policy of keeping pandemic studies secret. A previous, far larger, simulation called Winter Willow that took place in 2007 and involved five times as many people was published without incident, and remains freely available online.

In July the health minister Edward Argar told a parliamentary committee that while he had been briefed on the findings of the Cygnus simulation, even he had not seen the actual report until it was published in the Guardian.

Last month the Information Commissioner’s Office, which regulates freedom of information cases, ordered the DHSC to formally engage with a request for a copy of the Cygnus report.

In submissions to the ICO the department appeared to suggest that official publication of the Cygnus report had been delayed by the health secretary, Matt Hancock.

“DHSC has been awaiting ministerial opinion on a submission provided. As you will probably be aware, this relates to leaked material and is extremely sensitive,” they wrote.

“We are unable to respond until the secretary of state for health and social care is satisfied and, understandably, are not able to determine when this will be.”

A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said Cygnus-style exercises were not published regularly “to allow participants to provide honest feedback”.

“We have used the lessons learned from Exercise Cygnus to rapidly respond to this unprecedented global crisis. This included being ready with legislative proposals that were the initial basis of the Coronavirus Act 2020, planning for recruitment and deployment of retired staff and volunteers, and improving plans to flex systems and expand beyond normal NHS capacity levels.”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Official report that said UK was not prepared for pandemic is published | World news

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