Recent events have thrown the probity of the UK Prime Minister and his Health Secretary into question. We can reveal today that Mr Hancock has been keeping the existence of multiple pandemic exercises secret from Parliament and even from the Government’s own scientific expert advisors. These include “Exercise Alice” which modelled MERS – a coronavirus. We now think that Mr Hancock has some serious questions to answer.
We have personal experience of the Department of Health’s lack of candour under Matt Hancock – it led us to withdraw from legal action on false pretexts. More recently, it’s been asked whether the Health Secretary misled the Prime Minister over the care home crisis. His under-secretary Lord Bethell was certainly less than candid regarding risk assessment of care homes before COVID-19.
Lord Bethell was asked in Parliament why learning from Exercise Cygnus had failed to protect the care sector, and his response was “It was… a trial run for a flu pandemic, not of the kind that Covid produced”. He went on to say that the demands of COVID-19 on PPE, the health sector and the care sector were “more profound than the flu pandemic trials prepared us for”.
However, both Lord Bethell and his boss Matt Hancock failed to inform Parliament that the Government had completed a coronavirus preparedness exercise. In fact, shockingly, they also appear to have failed to inform NERVTAG and the Government’s own advisory committees. Perhaps this was one of the many reasons that Dominic Cummings repeatedly asked the Prime Minister to sack Mr Hancock.
What’s our legal campaign about, and what has it achieved so far?
Represented by Leigh Day, we’re fighting for transparency in pandemic data. We believe that pandemics are scientific and healthcare emergencies, and that transparency and accountability are essential for dealing with them effectively. Our legal campaign is supported by our generous Crowdjustice donors.
We’ve previously forced the Health Secretary to publish Exercise Cygnus. We’ve also reported the existence of secret briefing papers on pandemic triage for the NHS and social care. We’ve secured decision notices from the Information Commissioner’s Office against two public authorities, and we’re currently awaiting decision notices with regard to legal actions against the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health.
We’ve now forced Public Health England to reveal the existence of multiple secret exercises on multiple different types of viral pandemic, including a coronavirus exercise. Check out the Leigh Day press release here!
What’s the significance of Exercise Alice and what can we learn from it?
Matt Hancock put a lot of emphasis on the fact that Exercise Cygnus modelled an influenza and not any other virus, that’s what he told Parliament However, he failed to tell Parliament that the UK Government had modelled a coronavirus (MERS) pandemic during Exercise Alice.
From a public health perspective, the important features of any virus are how it’s transmitted, its incubation period, the R number, the case fatality rate, and whether it can be vaccinated against.
Exercise Alice should have prepared us for a virus with a longer incubation period than flu, which can survive on contaminated surfaces much longer than flu, which requires high levels of protection for healthcare workers, and which couldn’t be vaccinated against before a second wave. This should have led to different strategies on PPE and quarantine from a strategy based exclusively on a flu pandemic. 'Mr Hancock and Lord Bethell repeatedly hid behind the idea that Exercise Cygnus was 'only a flu exercise' – why did they fail to tell Parliament that Exercise Alice had modelled a coronavirus?' Click To Tweet
Why has the Government refused to publish its secret pandemic reports?
Public Health England has claimed a national security exemption. However, they’ve published Exercise Cygnus and there’s been no damage to national security. We’re not talking about an invasion by a foreign state, we’re talking about an international pandemic. This is a scientific emergency, not a national security issue.
We think they’re playing politics, which is normal for politicians, but not acceptable when so many British lives have been lost and continue to be at risk during an expected third wave.
Why should these reports be published?
It’s important to realise that COVID-19 is one in a series of novel viral pandemics over the last 20 years, including SARS, MERS, Zika and Ebola. There will be future pandemics, and clearly the last year has shown that the government and its agencies aren’t capable of learning without help from the independent scientific and healthcare communities.
This isn’t surprising, as even the best scientists (and healthcare professionals) need transparency, peer review and accountability to ensure best performance. There’s also a strong democratic argument for transparency, given the enormous damage to the general public during COVID-19.
What should MPs ask Hancock about these exercises today?
Today the MPs on the Joint Health & Science Select Committee should ask Mr Hancock why he told Parliament that Exercise Cygnus was designed to model influenza and not other pandemics, but failed to disclose to Parliament that the Government has modelled multiple other pandemics, including a coronavirus.
They should ask him specifically what is the national security justification for withholding all these other secret reports, when publication of the Cygnus Report has caused no damage to national security.
They should ask him why he has withheld the findings of these reports even from the government’s own advisory committees, such as NERVTAG?
They should ask him what the Chief Medical Officer and SAGE members have advised him regarding the importance of transparency in pandemic management, and whether hiding these reports is a scientific decision in the nation’s best interests or a political decision in his own interests?'Today the Joint Health & Science Select Committee should ask Mr Hancock whether hiding these pandemic reports is a scientific decision in the nation's best interests, or a political decision in his own interests?' Click To Tweet