Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Science & Tech
  2. Coronavirus
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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. 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. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. 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.

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.”

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

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.