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24 April 2020updated 06 Oct 2020 9:45am

Ministers were warned about risks of viral pandemic last year, leaked document shows

By Samuel Horti

Ministers were warned of the potentially devastating effects of a viral pandemic and urged to draw up a plan for dealing with an outbreak last year, a leaked Cabinet Office has revealed.

The document, leaked to the Guardian, said that even a moderate pandemic could cost more than 65,000 people their lives. The total cost to the UK of a viral outbreak could reach £2.35tn, the document said.

It urged ministers to stockpile personal protective equipment, organise advanced purchase agreements for essentials and draw up plans for both disease surveillance and contract tracing.

The document even analysed the specific risk of a coronavirus outbreak, which it regarded as potentially less damaging than a viral flu pandemic. 

The briefing, called the 2019 National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA), was signed off by the government’s chief scientific office Sir Patrick Vallance, who has regularly appeared at the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefings.

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A novel pandemic virus could be both “highly transmissible and highly virulent,” it said. “Therefore, pandemics significantly more serious than the reasonable worst case … are possible.”

The government would not provide specific details of pre-pandemic preparations when asked by the Guardian, but insisted it had not been “starting from scratch” after the crisis took hold. “This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice,” a government spokesman said.