How prepared was the UK government for the coronavirus outbreak?

The Government is facing growing criticism over its handling of core aspects of the coronavirus pandemic.

From being “too slow” to act on testing, PPE and the lockdown, to care home deaths and Boris Johnson’s attendance at meetings, ministers are caught in a storm. 

But experts say it is hard to pin the blame on certain individuals when the current apparent failures may have been years in the making.

Here, we take a look at just how prepared the country really was for the crisis.

Boris Johnson has been criticised for missing key meetings during the crisis (10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty)

Was there much planning before the outbreak?

Experts are torn on where the blame lies for the apparent failure to respond quickly to the crisis, and it helps to cast our eyes back a bit. 

In 2011, the Government set out its approach to a coronavirus-like pandemic in a UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy, covering the need to stockpile medicines and equipment, and prepare hospitals for a surge in patients with the disease.

Public Health England’s (PHE) Pandemic Influenza Response Plan was published in 2014 and highlighted procedures for rolling out stockpiles of PPE as well as the use of “just in time” procurement to supplement them.

The UK Government has faced scrutiny over when it entered and plans to exit lockdown (PA)

Then in October 2016, the Government ran the three-day Cygnus exercise that tested the country’s ability to handle an influenza pandemic.

The findings from the Cygnus exercise have not been made public, but reports have suggested that they revealed a shortage of critical care beds and PPE – and that they fell on deaf ears.

The Government has roundly dismissed those reports and said it was “extremely proactive” in implementing lessons learned from the past.

But Dr Patricia Lewis, research director for international security at think tank Chatham House, said: “The trouble is, if you don’t know the results of it how do you know that the lessons learned were applied?”

She called for greater levels of scrutiny, such as a new legal requirement for the Government to report to Parliament every year on the state of national plans.

Was the Government ill-prepared on PPE?

Ministers and NHS frontline workers have been telling different stories on PPE supplies (PA)

The Government insists it has distributed millions of PPE items to health workers, but reports of shortages on the NHS front line have seen ministers face a barrage of criticism in recent weeks and calls to bolster supplies.

Among them is why the Government did not sign up to the EU procurement scheme and why some domestic manufactures have had to discuss sending PPE abroad because the Government is not buying it from them

Matt Hancock was forced to deny the claim that was made by top Foreign Office civil servant Sir Simon McDonald to the Commons foreign affairs committee on Tuesday that it was a “political decision” not to sign up.

The Health Secretary added that checks were needed on offers from UK firms as not all opportunities had been “credible”.

Dr Lewis said that PPE shortages were a “really shocking state of affairs” and were one of the basic issues that “parliamentarians need to scrutinise”.

She said Parliament’s National Security Strategy Joint Committee inquiry into preparing for emerging infectious diseases and bioweapons was forced to close last year as the general election was called.

Dr David Oliver, an NHS consultant in geriatrics and acute general medicine and a Nuffield Trust trustee, added that Asian countries’ implementation of “early aggressive contact tracing, testing the whole population and early lockdown does seem to have flattened the curve and worked”.

He said “mixed messages” on PPE had angered staff, with the situation yet to improve in the community or care homes, where a true picture of the deaths toll is not available.

Was the Government too slow on testing?

Another area in which ministers have been under fire is testing. On Wednesday Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, deputising for the PM, doubled down on Mr Hancock’s pledge for 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. 

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had defended the PMs coronavirus response (10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty)

However, he admitted that currently – despite claiming the Government has 40,000 test capacity – only 18,000 tests are being carried out a day. 

Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College, said “really good” preparations under previous Labour governments had helped the bioscience sector respond quickly to the current crisis.

But he said there had been an “under-investment” in the public health infrastructure and devolution had “fragmented what used to be a world class service”.

He added: “I think the capacity we’ve got in terms of being able to test large numbers of samples would be better if we had scaled up rather than really squeezed the investment over the past few years.”

What about Boris Johnson’s leadership?

Boris Johnson missed five emergency Cobra meetings in the early days of the outbreak and, it is claimed, ignored scientific warnings.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove was forced to defend the Prime Minister – who is currently recovering from Covid-19 at Chequers – branding his leadership during the crisis as “clear” and “inspirational”.

Boris Johnson is still recovering from Covid-19 (Getty Images)

The Government later hit back on Sunday following an explosive newspaper investigation with a furious rebuttal saying it is standard for different Cabinet ministers to chair Cobra. 

But the Sunday Times reporters behind it claimed there is no precedent in recent British political history of a PM being absent from Cobra consecutively during a national crisis. 

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said there was a “pattern emerging” in the Government’s response, adding “we were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment”.

In terms of lessons for the future, Dr Lewis said the Government should reinstate the position of Minister for Resilience, a role last held in 2018 by Conservative MP Caroline Nokes.

Dr Lewis said: “The trouble is, as we’re seeing, if you don’t have anyone in charge, you end up with things falling between the cracks.”

Additional reporting by PA.


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