Covid bereaved voice anguish at ‘ignored’ UK virus planning report

Families lament government’s failure to stock up on PPE and set up contact tracing as advised in 2016 exercise

Families bereaved by Covid have expressed pain at revelations that a government exercise modelling a large-scale coronavirus outbreak recommended four years before the pandemic that better preparations were needed in key areas including building stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) and a contact-tracing system.

Following the Guardian’s revelations about the previously confidential report on Exercise Alice, the Liberal Democrats have questioned the credibility of Jeremy Hunt, who was health secretary at the time of the exercise, in co-leading an inquiry into lessons from the pandemic, which reports next week.

“Our loved ones might still be with us today if only the government had followed their own recommendations,” said Lobby Akinnola, the spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, which represents more than 4,000 bereaved families.

Exercise Alice war-gamed cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers-CoV) arriving in London and Birmingham and spreading rapidly. The findings warned of the need for stockpiles of PPE, a computerised contact-tracing system and screening for overseas travel.

“For the tens of thousands of families that lost loved ones as a direct consequence of the lack of PPE, ineffectual contact-tracing systems or the failures in screening for foreign travel, this news is extremely painful,” Akinnola said. “We can’t help asking what is the point in the Department of Health carrying out these exercises if they’re just going to ignore them when a crisis actually hits?”

The Department of Health has said Mers differed from Covid-19 and that “the results of Exercise Alice have been incorporated into ongoing planning work”.

But Labour said the emergence of the report, which warned of actions to prepare for a potentially fatal coronavirus that spreads asymptomatically and attacks respiratory systems, showed “devastating incompetence at the top of government with the most tragic of consequences”.

“Ministers were complacent, hubristic and asleep despite the warning signs,” said Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary. “What’s more, years of Tory cutbacks left us with a weakened NHS lacking the beds and staff numbers needed when the crisis hit.”

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, sent the revelations would prompt doubts about Hunt’s role in the report being published on Tuesday following a joint inquiry by the Commons health committee, which Hunt chairs, and the science committee.

“It is increasingly clear that one of the reasons we have such a high death rate, the reason we failed on test and trace, the reason we had such a tragic crisis in our care homes is that, on Jeremy Hunt’s watch as health secretary the government failed to prepare,” Davey said. “Can we really trust Jeremy Hunt to tell the public one lesson we have to learn is that he got it wrong?”

Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP for Brighton who had been pushing for the report to be released in parliament, said: “We now know beyond any doubt that there was an utter lack of preparedness by this government against virtually every basic measure to keep people as safe as possible in the event of a pandemic – and that they ignored warning after warning of the likely consequences. The promised public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic should be expanded in scope, with its interim findings made available before the next general election.”

The government initially refused to release the report under the Freedom of Information Act to Dr Moosa Qureshi, a clinician and transparency campaigner, arguing it could “lead to loss of public confidence in the government’s and the NHS’s Covid-19 response … based on misinterpretation of the report.”


Robert Booth and Peter Walker

The GuardianTramp

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