Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
9 May 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 4:58am

Exclusive: Video shows key UK official in 2016 anticipating “a pandemic that killed a lot of people”

Government planning rested on the assumption that the UK would simply let a future tragedy unfold.  

By Harry Lambert

On 16 March we reported that the UK had carried out a confidential pandemic training exercise in late 2016, codenamed Cygnus. The story was picked up 12 days later in the Sunday Telegraph and reverberated across the media. The report, as we wrote on 16 March, showed that the UK’s pandemic plans had been “tested and failed” and yet “were not rewritten or revised”.

We now have video from the event in November 2016 when the then UK chief medical officer, Sally Davies – Christopher Whitty’s predecessor – reported on the failings of Cygnus. Until the full 57-page report was leaked on Thursday, the findings had not been made public.

“We’ve just had in the UK a three-day exercise on flu, on a pandemic that killed a lot of people,” Davies tells Radio 4 presenter Mishal Hussein in the video, who chaired the event at the World Innovation Summit for Health in Doha, “and it became absolutely clear,” continues Davies, that “we could not cope with the excess bodies.”

A severe pandemic, Davies goes on, will in future “stretch everyone. It becomes very worrying about the deaths… and then what that will do to society, as you start to get all of those deaths… and then the economic impact.”

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

“As you start to get all those deaths,” said Davies. This is not the language of suppression. This is the language of mitigation. It appears that the UK did not intend to suppress a future pandemic, as we have argued before. Exercise Cygnus tested for a pandemic that would lead to between 200,000 and 400,000 UK deaths. That was thought to be a plausible outcome.

Government planning rested on the idea that the UK (and other countries) would, as one observer put it, “just sit back and let tragedy of that scale unfold. Nowhere in the plan is there recognition that neighbouring countries hit first would react with lockdown.” Indeed. For more on that, see this.

Content from our partners
Transport is the core of levelling up
The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery

Whitehall plans rested on a failure of imagination. The UK overturned a years-long strategy – to mitigate a future crisis, but not to suppress it – when it locked down on 23 March. (Sally Davies declined to comment when the New Statesman spoke to her on 24 March.)

The UK is now paying the price for failing to act, both after Cygnus in 2016 and earlier this year when the crisis began. The country now has the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in Europe. I discussed the implications for No 10 of that statistic in this week’s political column. But this crisis has implicated more than just Boris Johnson’s government.

The failings of Exercise Cygnus took place under Theresa May’s tenure, and the long reign of Jeremy Hunt as secretary of state for health, while the UK’s errant pandemic plans date back to the mid-2000s. No party or recent government foresaw or forestalled this crisis.