Leaked document on ‘Exercise Cygnus’ reveals UK’s insufficient preparation for pandemics

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A secret Whitehall document condemning the UK’s “insufficient” preparedness for a health pandemic such as the coronavirus (Covid-19) 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.

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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 5 May. On the same day, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) put the death toll at 32,375.

The UK now has 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 claiming last month that “everything that was appropriate to do was done”.

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