A former chief medical officer has said the UK was left ill-prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic because Public Health England told her a major coronavirus disease would "never travel this far".
Dame Sally Davies is set to accuse Public Health England (PHE) of misleading the Government into practicing for "the wrong pandemic" at the forthcoming public inquiry into Covid-19, The Telegraph can disclose.
She will say the scientific advice to focus on the threat from influenza meant the UK never put plans in place for mass testing and contact tracing, unlike other countries who managed to keep Covid largely under control.
As Downing Street's most senior medical adviser during the decade leading up to the Covid pandemic, Dame Sally is set to be a key witness at the upcoming public inquiry promised by Boris Johnson once the worst of the crisis is over.
In her first interview since handing the job of chief medical officer to Professor Chris Whitty last September, Dame Sally admitted the UK's preparedness for a pandemic had been "found wanting".
"We were not as well prepared as we should have been," she told The Telegraph. "I think the public deserves to know everything."
Her most damaging allegation is that in around 2015 she asked Public Health England officials whether the Government should rehearse for an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), but was assured the disease would "never travel this far in big numbers" from Asia.
Sars, like Covid-19, is a coronavirus and can be suppressed effectively through mass testing and contact tracing, unlike pandemic influenza, which PHE advised would spread too quickly. Had the UK practiced its response to a Sars-like virus, Dame Sally said, it would have been likely to have been far better prepared for Covid.
"I felt as chief medical officer that we should practice a number of things," she said. "I did ask during a conversation in my office in around 2015, should we do Sars? But I was told no, because it wouldn't reach us properly. They said it would die out and would never travel this far.
"So I did ask, but it was the Public Health England people who said we didn't need to do it, and I'll say that to Parliament. That advice meant we never seriously sat down and said: 'Will we have a massive pandemic of something else?'
"You could argue that various people should have been asking that question. But both the minister and I had to take advice from Public Health England. That was their job."
The decision to focus on influenza meant ministers and officials failed to practice how to stop a disease spreading during a three-day dry run, codenamed Exercise Cygnus, in 2016. Instead, the scenario was set seven weeks into a pandemic, when hospitals were already overwhelmed.
"That has to be one of the failings of scenario planning in that way, because what you're doing is responding rather than thinking how do I intervene?" Dame Sally said. "It didn't cross my mind at the time, but that's the truth."
Exercise Cygnus was marked "Official – Sensitive" and kept quiet for years until The Telegraph reported its existence earlier this year. Last month, the Government finally published a summary of the report after losing a battle with the Information Commissioner's Office.
The document showed that Cygnus found Britain was not prepared for a pandemic's "extreme demands" and made recommendations about surge capacity in hospitals, the need to close schools and the danger of "silos" in planning. Many of its suggestions were apparently never carried out.
The report even forewarned of the Covid-19 crisis in care homes, raising concerns about social care's ability to handle patients discharged from hospitals. Yet care providers devastated by Covid complained that they had never heard of Cygnus or its findings.
"With hindsight we know care homes should have been told – although that wasn't my area," Dame Sally said. "But NHS England were in the room, and local authorities were in the room. If you're in a big meeting and you make a recommendation, you kind of assume people will have a think about it. In this case, it appears that they didn't.
"We should all have done better, of course. If Cygnus had been out there in the open, it might have helped. I don't know. My gut reaction is that unless it's a security issue, it's always better to be transparent."
Dame Sally also revealed her "shock" that hospitals and care homes ran out of personal protective equipment (PPE) so quickly during the first wave, when hundreds of healthworkers died and nurses were reduced to wearing bin bags. Later, it was discovered that the value of the UK's pandemic PPE stockpile, estimated at £831 million in 2013, had declined by 40 per cent over the past six years.
"I have a daughter who was on the frontline then and is on the frontline now. No health staff should have died because they caught Covid in a health facility," Dame Sally said.
"When we had Ebola in 2012, I made sure that everyone in the NHS knew how to use PPE and made sure there were supplies. After 2012 I did not think to make sure that the PPE work was still continuing. Maybe I should have done, but to be fair I was quite busy with other things."
She said the Government had shown a "lack of agility" in the critical first weeks, saying: "There was an article in the Lancet at the end of January from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention laying out the risk. So it was there. We could have and we should have locked down earlier, so I would argue that we need to be more agile and responsive.
"They told university labs not to get involved in testing, labs that had done far more testing than Public Health England ever have. When the review happens, there will be horror stories."
A Public Health England spokesman said: "The claim that PHE ignored threats other than flu is wrong. Dame Sally Davies participated in exercises which planned specifically for a Mers coronavirus scenario in the UK amongst other health threats.
"DHSC and the Cabinet Office have overall responsibility for pandemic planning and the focus was on planning for an influenza pandemic as this was top of the National Risk Assessment.
"In all of our time working with Dame Sally Davies, we agreed that the country should prepare for all health protection threats including infections caused by different organisms such as coronaviruses."
A Department of Health spokesman said: "This is an unprecedented pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice, to protect the NHS and save lives. Thanks to our ongoing national efforts, we haven't seen hospitals overwhelmed with patients, nor people left without hospital beds or ventilators.
"There is a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes, all of which would not be possible without the years of preparation undertaken for a pandemic, including flu and other infectious diseases like Mers, Sars and Ebola."
This week, Dame Sally will publish radical new proposals urging ministers to use the "Covid moment" to make the "biggest leap forward for our society since the NHS was set up in 1948".
"Health is our primary asset for happiness and economic success, both as individuals and as communities, and as a nation we ought to value it," she said. "Health shouldn't be a drain on our resources – it is our most untapped opportunity for prosperity. And that's why we ought to measure it, and we ought to invest in it."
Her ideas will be laid out in a new book, entitled "Whose Health Is It Anyway", published this week by Oxford University Press and co-written with Dr Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, vice-chair of the Royal Society for Public Health.