Report: UK Govt Knew Health System Could Not Handle Pandemic Three Years Ago– But Kept It Secret

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The British government was made aware three years ago that the National Health Service (NHS) would be overwhelmed in the event of a severe pandemic, yet it kept the findings secret from the public and failed to implement reforms before the coronavirus outbreak.

In October 2016, a cross-government test under the codenamed Exercise Cygnus was performed to study how the NHS, the British Medical Association, and the military would handle a major influenza outbreak.

Government ministers were warned that the nation’s healthcare system failed the test, with “terrifying results” — but the findings were deemed too sensitive and therefore hidden from the public.

The results of the test found that the NHS did not have the required “surge capacity” to cope with a pandemic and that the system would require thousands of additional critical care beds during a crisis. Failures in the supply chain of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical staff were discovered as well, according to  The Telegraph.

The test also found that doctors would have to develop a “battlefield” mentality, choosing which patients should receive care based on the likelihood of them surviving. Bosses at the NHS would have to “switch off” large parts of the healthcare system and it was suggested that even midwives would have to abandon their duty of delivering babies and join the pandemic effort.

Officials have claimed that the results needed to remain classified over “biosecurity concerns”. Others cited fears that the documents would spark a panic within the country.

“There has been a reluctance to put Cygnus out in the public domain because frankly it would terrify people,” a senior official said.

Exercise Cygnus was run by a group of academics at Imperial College London, the same group which is now tracking the coronavirus pandemic. Sources close to the group told the newspaper that the team was “unpleasantly surprised” by the lack of action taken to change the system after the exercise.

“It’s basically a lack of attention to what would be needed to prevent a disease like this from overwhelming the system. All the flexibility has been pared away so it’s difficult to react quickly. Nothing is ready to go,” the source said.

“These exercises are supposed to prepare government for something like this — but it appears they were aware of the problem but didn’t do much about it,” the source added.

Some officials involved in the crafting of Cygnus claimed that “serious lessons were learned” were learned by the government.

“It’s right to say that the NHS was stretched beyond breaking point by Cygnus,” an anonymous senior official said.

“People might say we have blood on our hands but the fact is that it’s always easier to manage the last outbreak than the one coming down the track. Hindsight is a beautiful thing,” the official added.

Follow Kurt on Twitter at @KurtZindulka

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