Government was warned NHS would struggle to cope with pandemic three years ago

·3-min read
London Ambulances are pictured parked in the car park at the ExCeL London exhibition centre in London on March 29, 2020, which has been transformed into a field hospital to be known as the NHS Nightingale Hospital, to help with the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. - Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Saturday the coronavirus outbreak will get worse before it gets better, as the number of deaths in Britain rose 260 in one day to over 1,000. The Conservative leader, who himself tested positive for COVID-19 this week, issued the warning in a leaflet being sent to all UK households explaining how their actions can help limit the spread. "We know things will get worse before they get better," Johnson wrote. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Ambulances are pictured parked at the ExCeL London which has been transformed into a field hospital (Getty)

The government was warned three years ago that the NHS would struggle to cope in the event of a pandemic like coronavirus, it has been revealed.

A major cross-government test called Exercise Cygnus was carried out in October 2016 to examine how well the NHS would handle a severe outbreak.

After the damning test results were collected, ministers were reportedly warned that Britain’s health service would be quickly overwhelmed - but the government failed to act on the report’s recommendations.

According to The Sunday Telegraph, Exercise Cygnus showed the NHS lacked adequate “surge capacity” and would require thousands more critical care beds.

A 'Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives' message is displayed to motorists on the ring road in Wolverhampton city centre as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)
People have been told to stay at home to stop the virus spreading. (Getty)

It also found mortuaries would be quickly overwhelmed and there would be a lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for doctors and nurses.

After the report’s findings were heard by ministers, they were reportedly barred from publication over fears the results would scare the general public.

“There has been a reluctance to put Cygnus out in the public domain because frankly it would terrify people,” a former senior government source told The Sunday Telegraph.

Latest coronavirus news, updates and advice

Live: Follow all the latest updates from the UK and around the world

Fact-checker: The number of COVID-19 cases in your local area

6 charts and maps that explain how coronavirus is spreading

“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.”

Despite the failings exposed by Cygnus, the government reportedly never changed its strategic roadmap for a future pandemic, with the last update carried out in 2014.

More than 1,000 people have died after contracting the virus, the Department of Health revealed on Saturday.

Covid-19 related deaths in the UK jumped from 759 to 1,019 – an increase of 260 and by far the biggest day-on-day rise since the outbreak began.

On Saturday the editor of a British medical journal said NHS bosses could have prevented “chaos and panic” in a system left “wholly unprepared for this pandemic”.

Richard Horton wrote in The Lancet that numerous warnings were issued to the NHS but these were not heeded, but his claims were branded inaccurate by the NHS.

A sign by Wembley Park Tube Station in London that thanks the hardworking NHS staff who are trying to battle coronavirus. A national salute for the frontline healthcare heroes is taking place across the UK with a mass round of applause from doorsteps, windows and balconies on Thursday at 8pm.
A sign by Wembley Park Tube Station in London that thanks hardworking NHS staff. (PA)

He cited an example from his journal on January 20, pointing to a global epidemic: “Preparedness plans should be readied for deployment at short notice, including securing supply chains of pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, hospital supplies and the necessary human resources to deal with the consequences of a global outbreak of this magnitude.”

Dr Horton said the Government’s Contain-Delay-Mitigate-Research plan had failed.

He said: “It failed, in part, because ministers didn’t follow WHO’s advice to ‘test, test, test’ every suspected case. They didn’t isolate and quarantine. They didn’t contact trace.

“These basic principles of public health and infectious disease control were ignored, for reasons that remain opaque.”

He added that “The result has been chaos and panic across the NHS”.