Ministers were warned last year the UK must have a robust plan to deal with a pandemic virus and its potentially catastrophic social and economic consequences in a confidential Cabinet Office briefing leaked to the Guardian.
The detailed document warned that even a mild pandemic could cost tens of thousands of lives, and set out the must-have “capability requirements” to mitigate the risks to the country, as well as the potential damage of not doing so.
It comes as the UK’s hospital death toll from coronavirus heads towards 20,000. Less than a month ago, the medical director at NHS England, Prof Stephen Powis, said the country would “have done very well” to stay below this grim milestone.
Marked “official, sensitive”, the 2019 National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) was signed off by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, as well as a senior national security adviser to the prime minister whom the Guardian has been asked not to name.
The recommendations within it included the need to stockpile PPE (personal protective equipment), organise advanced purchase agreements for other essential kit, establish procedures for disease surveillance and contact tracing, and draw up plans to manage a surge in excess deaths.
All of these areas have come under relentless scrutiny since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with the government accused of being too slow to react to the crisis. It is now under sustained pressure to provide answers about what was done nationally and locally to provide the support that planners have long called for, amid growing fears ministers were “caught out” by the crisis and have been playing catchup ever since.
The Cabinet Office document, which runs to more than 600 pages, not only analysed the risk of a viral flu pandemic but also specifically addressed the potential for a coronavirus outbreak (the earlier Sars and Mers were both coronaviruses), though it regarded this as potentially much less damaging. In reality, the UK is dealing with a hybrid of the two, raising further questions about whether ministers were quick enough to recognise the dangers and were able to rely on whatever preparations were already in place.
Source: The Guardian