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Ministers were warned NHS would be stretched to ‘breaking point’ by pandemic in 2016 practice run

Ministers were warned NHS would be stretched to ‘breaking point’ by pandemic in 2016 practice run

The 2016 operation assessed how the Government would cope with a major pandemic.

3 min read

The NHS failed a test of its ability to withstand a major pandemic three years ago but the results were not made public, it has emerged.

The Sunday Telegraph reports that a three-day cross-government practice run found Britain would be quickly overwhelmed by an outbreak and flagged a shortage of personal protective equipment, morgue capacity and critical care beds.

The test - codenamed Exercise Sygnus - was carried out in October 2016 - but the paper reports that its findings were deemed too sensitive to be made public.

The results of the study were said to have prompted ministers to draft emergency legislation that formed the basis of the wide-ranging Coronavirus Bill that was rushed through the Commons last week.

One former senior government source said: "There has been a reluctance to put Cygnus out in the public domain because frankly it would terrify people.

“It’s right to say that the NHS was stretched beyond breaking point [by Cygnus]. 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.”

More than 1,000 organisations took part in the 2016 exercise, with NHS trusts, the military and doctors' associations asked to show how they would cope with a major influenza outbreak.

The report, which used modelling by the same Imperial College London team whose work is being used to track the Covid-19 outbreak, is said to have found significant gaps in the NHS's "surge capacity", while mortuaries were rapidly overwhelmed because of a lack of doctors able to certify causes of death.

Questions were also raised about the supply of life-saving protective equipment to doctors and nurses, sources told the paper.

Speaking about the operation in a 2016 speech - in one of few public references to the exercise - then-chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies said: "We’ve just had in the UK a three-day exercise on flu on a pandemic that killed a lot of people.

"It became clear that we could not cope with the excess bodies, for instance. It becomes very worrying about the deaths, and what that will do to society as you start to get all those deaths, [including] the economic impact.

"If we, as one of the most prepared countries, are going through an exercise and find a lot of things that need improving just on the internal bit, add to it the [lack of] vaccines and then the global traffic and the lack of solidarity... a severe one will stretch everyone."

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "The coronavirus outbreak calls for decisive action, at home and abroad, and the World Health Organisation recognises that the UK is one of the most prepared countries in the world for pandemic flu.

"As the public would expect, we regularly test our pandemic plans and the learnings from previous exercises have helped allow us to rapidly respond to COVID-19.

"We are committed to be as transparent as possible, and in publishing the SAGE evidence the public are aware of the science behind the government’s response."

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