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Matt Hancock urged to publish secret review of pandemic plans | Politics

Campaigners said they would press the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to publish in full a secret review of the UK’s preparations to deal with a flu-like pandemic after a partial leak revealed it had warned the country was not ready to cope.

Exercise Cygnus, a 2016 dry run to test how the UK would respond, specifically warned that social care would struggle in a pandemic crisis but did not discuss in detail the need for testing or protective equipment for carers.

Elements of the 57-page document were leaked to the Sun on Tuesday but the full document remains secret, prompting renewed calls from an NHS doctor, Moosa Qureshi, and his lawyers Leigh Day for the government to release it without delay.

According to the newspaper, the report’s author, Helen Shirley-Quirk, the then director for emergency preparedness and health protection policy at the Department of Health, wrote: “The UK’s preparedness and response is not currently sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic.”

The full document, written in 2017, recognised that a pandemic outbreak was “the most significant civil emergency risk” facing the UK. It was shared around the government, but ministers have refused to make it public amid concerns that its conclusions could frighten the public.

Cygnus took place over three days in October 2016 and was led by Dame Sally Davies, the then chief medical officer for England. The document concluded: “The exercise did show that the UK’s capability to respond to a worst case pandemic influenza should be critically reviewed.”

Symptoms are defined by the NHS as either:

  • a high temperature – you feel hot to touch on your chest or back
  • a new continuous cough – this means you’ve started coughing repeatedly

NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days.

If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

After 14 days, anyone you live with who does not have symptoms can return to their normal routine. But, if anyone in your home gets symptoms, they should stay at home for 7 days from the day their symptoms start. Even if it means they’re at home for longer than 14 days.

If you live with someone who is 70 or over, has a long-term condition, is pregnant or has a weakened immune system, try to find somewhere else for them to stay for 14 days.

If you have to stay at home together, try to keep away from each other as much as possible.

After 7 days, if you no longer have a high temperature you can return to your normal routine.

If you still have a high temperature, stay at home until your temperature returns to normal.

If you still have a cough after 7 days, but your temperature is normal, you do not need to continue staying at home. A cough can last for several weeks after the infection has gone.

Staying at home means you should:

  • not go to work, school or public areas
  • not use public transport or taxis
  • not have visitors, such as friends and family, in your home
  • not go out to buy food or collect medicine – order them by phone or online, or ask someone else to drop them off at your home

You can use your garden, if you have one. You can also leave the house to exercise – but stay at least 2 metres away from other people.

If you have symptoms of coronavirus, use the NHS 111 coronavirus service to find out what to do.

Source: NHS England on 23 March 2020

Campaigners led by Qureshi, a member of the whistleblowers campaign group 54000 Doctors, first called for Cygnus to be made public over the weekend, arguing that publication would allow the public to see whether its recommendations had been properly followed through.

A crowdfunding page to help commence judicial review proceedings has already raised more than £33,000 of the £50,000 required to meet legal fees. Members of Qureshi’s legal team indicated that the latest leaks highlighted the need to get the full document into the public domain.

Hancock told LBC radio on Tuesday morning that he had been advised by officials that the lessons of Cygnus had been taken on board, when reports of the existence of the secret exercise began circulating a month ago.

“I asked my officials to go back when this first came up in the press a few weeks ago and check that everything that was recommended was done and that’s the assurance that I got,” the minister said, adding the exercise took place “before my time”, when Jeremy Hunt was health secretary.

The latest leak includes some further details. Cygnus warned that social care could be at risk of collapse, partly because it was expected that the NHS would discharge elderly patients into increasingly crowded care homes.

It concluded that an NHS under severe pressure would have to concentrate its efforts on treating younger and fitter patients through a process of “population triage” – and that as many of half of health service staff could be off sick.

But there was only one reference to personal protective equipment – a recommendation that more distribution points were needed around the country – suggesting the issue that has dogged the NHS in the current crisis was not deemed a high priority in the dummy exercise.

Hancock said the UK’s preparations were “were amongst the most extensive in the world”. But he added there were also limits to what could be done in advance, particularly given that Cygnus was focused on a future outbreak of flu, not coronavirus. “You can’t prepare for a virus that is itself new by its nature,” the minister said.


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