Let’s open up the mechanics of Exercise Cygnus, and look at the pivotal role of “Resilience Forums” in the UK’s pandemic strategy. Then I’m going to tell you the story of Essex Fire Service’s extraordinary cat-and-mouse response to our legal campaign for pandemic transparency.
Resilience Forums – what are they?
Exercise Cygnus has been extensively covered in the media, but very few (if any) political commentators have analysed the role of the Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) in pandemic preparedness. Let’s get some clarity on the LRFs before I tell you how Essex Fire Service fits into the story.
Parliament has provided a legal duty to prepare for pandemics and other civil emergencies, and it’s given that responsibility to Category 1 responders. These include local authorities, emergency services (including specifically the fire and rescue authorities), health authorities and the Environment Agency. Category 1 responders have to act together in Local Resilience Forums or “Strategic Coordinating Groups”, and these LRFs/SCGs were key players in Exercise Cygnus.
The role of the LRFs/SCGs during Exercise Cygnus was crucial in “the link between local and national levels in the [pandemic] response”. They collated the raw primary data on the ground, and this information was then fed upwards to the Department for Communities & Local Government, and thereon to the Cabinet Office (COBR). Many of the Cygnus Report’s recommendations are derived directly from the LRFs. 'The role of the LRFs or SCGs was crucial in the link between local and national levels in the pandemic response. Many of Cygnus's recommendations are derived directly from the LRFs'. Click To Tweet
However, there’s a tricky problem when you try to get information about what the Local Resilience Forums are up to: Legally, the LRFs don’t exist; they’re just “forums” for the Category 1 responders to collaborate during a civil emergency. That means you can’t take an LRF to court or ask it to disclose information under the Freedom of Information Act. 'Legally, Local Resilience Forums don't exist – that makes things tricky. It means you can't take an LRF to court and it's not subject to the Freedom of Information Act'. Click To Tweet
Why is the raw data so important?
There’s a significant discrepancy between the “official” findings of Exercise Cygnus presented in Public Health England (PHE)’s published report, and other reliable sources of information about what happened during Exercise Cygnus.
For instance, a spokesperson for Jeremy Hunt (the former Health Secretary) has confirmed that Mr Hunt was asked to turn off ventilators for thousands of patients during Exercise Cygnus. This event is of enormous significance and public interest, but it’s not remotely mentioned in the PHE report. 'There's a significant discrepancy between PHE's published report and other reliable sources of information about what happened during Exercise Cygnus' Click To Tweet
PHE’s published Exercise Cygnus Report says very little about some of the most serious problems which could reasonably be expected to be encountered by Category 1 responders on the ground during a respiratory viral pandemic, such as the availability of personal protective equipment, intensive care capacity, and ventilator provision. It’s notable that our lived experience as NHS staff on the ground during the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t match the experience documented in PHE’s report, even though Exercise Cygnus modelled a pandemic which was “close to the UK’s worst case planning scenarios”.
In addition, the primary data collected from the LRFs (or analogous SCGs) during Exercise Cygnus was large in volume and requires extensive analysis. It’s clear that Central Government struggled to interpret the raw data from Exercise Cygnus, and this raises concerns that PHE’s report has over-simplified and/or misinterpreted important information of public interest:
In summary, the raw primary data collated by the LRFs/SCGs represents the unprocessed experience of emergency responders on the ground, before that data could be reworked by the Department of Health into an official report. Bearing in mind the discrepancy between PHE’s published report and other sources of information, as well as the reality of what has played out during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important for the raw data to be open to scrutiny by the general public, NHS staff on the ground, and the scientific community. 'Bearing in mind the discrepancy between PHE's published report and the reality of what's played out during COVID-19, it's important for the raw data to be open to scrutiny by the public, NHS staff on the ground, and the scientific community'. Click To Tweet
Why Essex Fire Service?
Essex Resilience Forum (ERF) was one of only three LRFs in Exercise Cygnus which provided hot debrief notes, cold debrief notes and an evaluator questionnaire to PHE, and also attended the PHE-led structured debrief. That means Essex provided a lot of raw data.
Essex Resilience Forum also picked up on potential problems at the interface between the NHS and social care services, and these problems were later implicated in tens of thousands of deaths in care homes during COVID-19. It’s therefore in the public interest to know what the ERF told the Cabinet Office, and how the Cabinet Office acted on the ERF’s concerns.
However, the Essex Resilience Forum doesn’t legally exist, so you can’t make a Freedom of Information request to it. You can only request information from Category 1 responders which co-operate within the ERF. Identifying the relevant Category 1 responders can be tricky because there are multiple local authorities and health authorities in Essex and no certainty about which ones participated in Exercise Cygnus. However, there’s only one Essex County Fire & Rescue Service (ECFRS) – logically, Essex Fire must have participated in Exercise Cygnus and must have access to the ERF’s raw data. 'There's multiple local authorities and health authorities in Essex, and no certainty about which ones participated in Exercise Cygnus, but there's only one Essex Fire Service – Essex Fire must have the raw data.' Click To Tweet
Essex Fire Service (and PHE) claim that Cygnus data compromises national security
We’ve been trying to uncover the Cygnus Reports for over a year now, and we’ve come across a great deal of evasion and obfuscation during our efforts, but the ECFRS’s response to my FOIA request will blow you away.
Essex Fire acknowledged that they held the ERF’s data from Exercise Cygnus, but said that disclosure of the data would threaten national security! Obviously this aroused my interest, because the Department of Health and Social Care had never given us a clue that Cygnus might involve national security. Could there be more to this exercise than we realised? 'Essex Fire Service acknowledged they held Essex Resilience Forum's data from Exercise Cygnus, but said that disclosure of the data would threaten national security. Could there be more to Cygnus than we realised?' Click To Tweet
By pure coincidence, I received an email from Public Health England at around the same time, saying that PHE couldn’t give me the names of all its secret pandemic reports because of national security concerns. I don’t wish to digress too far from Essex Fire, but Public Health England are currently arguing that it would breach national security even to tell me the number of secret pandemic reports they hold! You can read my email to THAT argument below! 'By pure coincidence, Public Health England claimed a national security exemption at the same time as Essex Fire. In fact, PHE are currently arguing it breaches national security even to tell me the number of secret pandemic reports they hold!' Click To Tweet
Getting back to our story about Essex Fire Service, at the same time as refusing to disclose their reports, the ECFRS decided to dangle a very tasty carrot in front of me. They told me they made the following recommendation from Exercise Cygnus: “Capture, for the plan, the options for discharge from hospital that health and social care devised for the exercise”.
PHE’s Exercise Cygnus Report also gives this evaluation from the ERF: “there needs to be a working group to look at how you can access this information (about social care capacity and requirements), there might be hundreds of vulnerable people who won’t get the help that they want or need and won’t be identified”.
Now this was really interesting, because we all know that tens of thousands of people died in social care after patients with COVID-19 infections were discharged from NHS hospitals into privatised care homes. It looks like Essex Resilience Forum warned the Cabinet Office there was a serious problem as far back as 2016. What did the Government do about it? 'It looks like Essex Resilience Forum warned the Cabinet Office that privatised care homes were vulnerable back in 2016. What did the Government do about it?' Click To Tweet
Of course I immediately requested an Internal Review of Essex Fire’s decision. The Internal Review was dodgy to say the least. It was performed by the same person (Mr P) who had decided not to disclose the information to me (though on this occasion he was overseen by a Data Protection Officer), and unsurprisingly Mr P agreed with himself that he’d made the right decision. 'Essex Fire's decision not to disclose data was made by a Mr P. The internal review of Mr P's decision was conducted by the same Mr P. Unsurprisingly, Mr P agreed with himself that he'd made the right decision !' Click To Tweet
However, Mr P had clearly decided I was a rabbit and proceeded to dangle another very tasty carrot in his Internal Review:
“ECFRS participated in Exercise Cygnus in its capacity as a Category 1 Responder. ECFRS also hosts the ERF secretariat function at its Kelvedon Park headquarters. The ERF is a collaborative organisation and ECFRS, as an individual member, cannot release the information requested without the permission of the ERF. This permission has not been given by the ERF Stakeholders. Furthermore, several of the documents you requested are classified as Official Sensitive and would not normally be released. This is why the details that you have requested have not been released to you.”
Obviously I was flabbergasted at this response. It seemed that Essex Fire was evading its legal obligations under the Freedom of Information Act by saying that other unidentified “Stakeholders” were preventing it from disclosing data to me. I proceeded directly to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office!
Essex Fire’s extraordinary response to my ICO complaint
The plot of this bizarre story then took an extraordinary turn. Mr P who had robustly declared that Essex Fire held the Resilience Forum’s documents on Exercise Cygnus, but couldn’t disclose them due to national security concerns, now wrote me the following e-mail:
Mr P was telling me that after deciding that Essex County Fire & Rescue Service held the information but couldn’t disclose it, and then after checking again (this time with the help of a Data Protection Officer!) and being told by other Essex Resilience Forum Stakeholders that ECFRS held the information but couldn’t disclose it… suddenly Essex Fire had realised it didn’t have the information.
This bizarre about-turn raises the following questions:
Why has Essex Fire suddenly decided it doesn’t hold the information which it previously repeatedly assured me that it held but could not disclose due to national security concerns ?
Why has Essex Fire suddenly taken the position that Exercise Cygnus was a “health exercise” when PHE’s Exercise Cygnus report clearly said: “This report identifies lessons relevant to all of the participating organisations and is not restricted to lessons reflecting only the experience of health organisations.” ?
Why is Essex Fire evading its legal obligations under the Freedom of Information Act and diverting my FOIA request to “the NHS”, when PHE’s Pandemic Influenza Response Plan clearly indicates (at page 19) that NHS organisations work alongside the SCGs, and that the LRF/SCG data bypasses the NHS Chief Executive and feeds directly back to the Cabinet Office ?
I put these questions to Mr P !
What does this all mean?
We’ve been pursuing the Exercise Cygnus data for over 12 months. There’s been a persistent pattern on the part of public bodies of closing ranks and refusing to disclose documentation relevant to the public’s understanding of the nation’s pandemic preparedness. The ECFRS’s recent dramatic change of position regarding disclosure, trying to evade its FOIA statutory obligations as a local public body, and diverting my FOIA request to a national public body “the NHS”, should raise concerns about a continuation of that pattern.
That’s why our legal campaign has decided the only way is Essex Fire Service. 'There's been a persistent pattern on the part of public bodies of closing ranks and refusing to disclose data on the UK's pandemic preparedness. That's why our legal campaign has decided the only way is Essex Fire Service'. Click To Tweet