Why you need to know about Cygnus

I guess you’d agree with me that COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. It’s not the Black Death, it’s not even the Spanish Flu, but it’s killed over 70,000 people in the UK alone and its economic effects are devastating. It’s closed the country down. Like previous major pandemics, it’s also had a transformative effect on society. It’s certainly changed my life as an NHS doctor.

Can you think of anything similar in living memory? For me, what makes COVID-19 very different from the UK’s historic challenges is that we’re not facing a political enemy. This isn’t a war against a Nazi dictatorship, this is a virus. But of course, politicians are in charge of our national pandemic strategy, and that’s turning into a problem.

Are politicians really  following the science?

“We’re following the science,” the MPs and ministers said. Every day. They all repeated the same (actually, they get an email every morning telling them what to say, that’s why they all sound so similar). But the problem is they’re not following the science, they never were. Politics and science are different ways of thinking about the world.

Which was never a problem until we asked politicians to provide leadership in the face of an existential crisis which is fundamentally scientific in nature.

So you might ask: How is this a problem? Why can’t politicians deal with the scientific challenge of COVID-19? 

The importance of open data for scientific progress

To answer that question, it’s important to understand how scientists and medics approach problems. Firstly, open data and information sharing is really important. For instance, if you’re diagnosed with cancer, then oncologists, radiologists, pathologists and others will all discuss your case in a multidisciplinary team  – sharing their expertise to agree on the best options for treating you. Obviously they won’t share your personal info with the world, but your cancer will contribute to statistical data which will inform the wider healthcare community and the public.

Similarly, scientific results are peer reviewed by experts and then published openly, so that (i) scientists can scrutinise and ensure the robustness of the published data, (ii) the new results can inform the scientific community and contribute to the incremental expansion of human knowledge. Nobody is exempt from this process, nobody is too clever. We even scrutinised Einstein. Because in the absence of (i) and (ii), science just doesn’t work.

Cygnus and the political cover-up of pandemic data

Which is why you should be worried about Cygnus. This was a national pandemic “learning” exercise organised in 2016 by the Department of Health. Except that the Government didn’t allow anybody to learn from it. They kept the reports secret. Not just one report into the exercise itself, but multiple reports. Phase One was kept secret. Phase Two was kept secret. The associated report on Exercise Cygnet. All kept secret. We are aware of pandemic exercises whose very names are not in the public domain.

For the last 9 months, we’ve been asking Matt Hancock to release the Cygnus data. Even Sir Paul Nurse (Nobel Prize winner, chief of the Crick Institute, probably the UK’s most eminent bioscientist) has said the Government should release the data. Matt Hancock has refused to disclose the Cygnus Reports. He’s done everything possible to hide pandemic data from scientists, healthcare workers and the general public.

The audacity of the Government’s secrecy during this terrible pandemic is astonishing. Imagine if I organised a hospital exercise to investigate if my department offered effective treatment to patients with cancer, and I found out that cancer care was sub-optimal, then I decided to keep the results secret, and then lots of patient with cancer died in large numbers. The medical regulator would strike me off the medical register, and the police would rightly investigate my actions.

The scale of the Cygnus cover-up is staggering. We’ve just found out on 18 December that the Department of Health have a secret Cygnus report on pandemic triage – deciding who the Government will care for and who the Government will allow to die if a major pandemic overwhelms NHS services. This information – and everything else learned from Cygnus – needs to be in the public domain. 80,000 British people have died, and many more will die this winter. We have a right to know what lies ahead. The Institute for Government has recently criticised the UK’s lack of transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The politicians have failed, because they didn’t even follow fundamental scientific principles, let alone “follow the science”. Open data, cooperation and peer review are cornerstones of the scientific approach. There is no persuasive argument for the Government’s political machinations and secrecy. Pandemics are a scientific and healthcare challenge which we can only meet by the whole population working together. That’s why you – and all of us – need to know about Cygnus.

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