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Covid-19, Truth and Operation Cygnus

April 26, 2020 10:00 PM
By South Suffolk Lib Dems, Peter Dobbs & articles in Independent, Guardian

Too few facts?

Covid19 graphicWith significant minorities in the UK believing in various conspiracy theories about the origins of Covid-19 and the illogical attacks on mobile phone masts (source Independent 26th April 2020) it is tempting to conclude that any government is facing an uphill battle if it seeks to convince people about the validity of its policies, especially in a situation as grave and complex as the one we find ourselves in.

However it is usually the absence of information that provides the climate for strange ideas to develop and it is therefore difficult to understand why there is so little 'real science' being shared with the public, simply the repetition of the statement that all decisions are being 'led by the science'.

In a similar way it seems that ministers are so fearful of giving bad news that they have all too often resorted to baseless promises for such things as PPE and Testing.

Sir Ed Davey (UK Lib Dems)

Sir Ed Davey

You have to acknowledge that the Government is confronted with a mammoth task in fighting Covid-19. Inevitably mistakes have been made given the number of simultaneous tasks that are required. When we get through the crisis some sort of public enquiry will surely be required to get at what happened and what lessons can be learnt, as has been requested by Sir Ed Davey. A suggestion so far rejected by the government.

Exercise Cygnus

Perhaps most worrying is the fact that in a sense we have 'been here before' quite recently and (apparently) completely failed to learn any lessons. I refer of course not to a real pandemic but to Exercise Cygnus, a three-day simulation of a flu like pandemic involving national, regional and local government bodies, conducted in October 2016. The confidential recommendations that followed are unknown beyond a small circle - other than it confirmed alarming gaps in the country's preparedness.

Dr Philip Lee (Wikipedia)

Dr Philip Lee

Dr Phillip Lee, the former Liberal Democrat MP who was a Conservative minister at the time of Cygnus, said the exercise had a very sobering impact on government. "We knew we were not prepared for a pandemic from the Cygnus report," Lee said. "It was a mistake not to publish it at the time. If we were not going to act on the lessons, then what was the point of the exercise?"
Lee said: "The question I would very much like to ask the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and Michael Gove, who has responsibility in the Cabinet Office, is when did they read the Cygnus report* that has not been published and, having read that report, why did they conclude not to increase testing, PPE and ventilator capacity in January?".'

It is the 'keeping quiet' that may prove to be the problem for ministers.
The Guardian of 26th April 2020 reports
"The government faces being taken to court if it refuses to disclose the findings of an exercise confirming the UK could not cope with a flu pandemic.

Dr Moosa Qureshi, an NHS doctor, is demanding the government publish its report into Exercise Cygnus, a three-day simulation involving government and public health bodies conducted in 2016.

Qureshi, who is a campaigner with the group 54000doctors.org, represented by Leigh Day solicitors, has sent a pre-action protocol letter to the secretary of state for health requesting a response by 4pm .

If the government fails to disclose the findings of Exercise Cygnus without adequate reason, Qureshi's lawyers will seek an urgent judicial review challenging the decision and seeking publication.

The row threatens to become a major embarrassment for the government. The Telegraph has reported that Cygnus's findings were deemed "too terrifying" to be made public.

Last week, the Observer revealed that minutes of the government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group suggested the report had included four key recommendations, including one that the department of health strengthen the surge capability, and capacity of hospitals to cope with a pandemic.

A freedom of information request to see the report has been refused.

Qureshi argues that there is exceptionally strong public interest in publication of the report, given that its lessons and recommendations are "directly relevant" to the procedures developed to combat Covid-19.

"There is no persuasive argument for secrecy when managing a healthcare crisis," Qureshi said. "Successful science and healthcare depend on transparency, peer review, collaboration and engagement with the public.

"I believe that if the government had followed the Cygnus exercise by engaging transparently with health and social care partners, with industry and the public, then many of the deaths of my heroic healthcare colleagues and the wider public during the Covid-19 pandemic could have been avoided."

In the meantime we are where we are but exactly where that is is becoming a lot harder to understand as the Government appears to change its position whenever it comes under scrutiny. This isn't just about cheap political point scoring, its also about having confidence in the decisions still to be made about how we come out of lockdown.

* Update Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, has admitted that it was only last week (w/e 25th April 2020) that he read a confidential government report on the lessons learnt from a three-day exercise in 2016 modelling what would happen in a pandemic. See Guardian report of 29th April.