Ministers from across government were seated, ashen faced, in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) as epidemiologists from Imperial College London were showing details of an epidemic that was enveloping Britain after the first cases of the virus had been confirmed in south east Asia two months previously. Britain reported its first cases, imported from returning travellers, a few weeks later and now there was widespread and sustained domestic transmission in the UK and the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared a global pandemic. However it was not the pandemic itself that was causing those gathered in Whitehall to grimace but the nation’s woeful preparation, the fact the NHS was completely underfunded for the event and so stretched under normal operations that it could barely cope before the pandemic. The peak of the epidemic had not yet arrived but local resilience forums, hospitals and mortuaries across the country were already being overwhelmed. There was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for the nation’s doctors and nurses. The NHS was about to “fall over” due to a shortage of ventilators and critical care beds. Mortuaries were expected to overflow, and it had become terrifyingly evident that the government’s emergency messaging was not getting traction with the public and that an economically ruinous lockdown would be needed. The only significant difference between the test drill and the pandemic we now face is that Cygnus was assumed to be the H2N2 influenza virus, while Covid-19 is a coronavirus. Both spread rapidly and kill by causing acute respiratory illness.
Current News?….No, this was a 2016 drill. Code-named Exercise Cygnus and involved all major government departments, the NHS and local authorities across Britain and which showed gaping holes in Britain’s Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response (EPRR) plan ….and the question now is whether the report about what to do was buried by Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt.
The Original report from 2014 entitled Pandemic influenza response plan (here) and the Pandemic Influenza Strategic Framework (here) were reviewed in 2016 as part of Exercise Cygnus . Exercise Cygnus was a simulation exercise carried out by the British government in October 2016, as highlighted in the Powys Pandemic Report to estimate the impact of a hypothetical influenza pandemic on the UK and the exercise showed that the pandemic would cause the country’s health system to collapse from a lack of resources, with Sally Davis the then Chief Medical Officer, stating that a lack of medical ventilators and the logistics of disposal of dead bodies were serious problems. As of March 2020, the full results of the exercise remain classified. At least the papers such as New Statesman and the Telegraph are baying for blood even if the Labour opposition is nowhere to be seen. (See the LBC interview here). This tied in with Exercise Black Swan which states that “a new influenza pandemic continues to be recognised as one of the six Tier 1 risks to the United Kingdom in the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015“
Why isn’t the report being declassified? The Cygnus exercise was described as a sobering experience.