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.


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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."

"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.

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. 

Harry Lambert is special correspondent of the New Statesman and writes long-reads for the magazine. He tweets at @harrytlambert and can be best reached via the One Great Read newsletter.

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