EXERCISE Cygnus has been in the news a lot after the Tories’ in-house Sunday paper, The Sunday Telegraph, claimed a big “exclusive” revealing that Cygnus had taken place in October 2016 and that its recommendations had not been acted upon.

That’s the same “exclusive” that featured in the New Statesman earlier this month and online Monthly Review last week.

And the existence of Cygnus and its main finding – that the NHS wouldn’t cope with a viral pandemic – was known back in December, 2016 when England’s then chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies told the World Innovation Summit for Health: “We’ve just had in the UK

a three-day exercise on flu, on a pandemic that killed a lot of people. It became clear that we could not cope with the excess bodies.”

She specifically singled out the lack of an adequate number of ventilators, as stated at the time in several newspapers, such as the Daily Express.


THE name is Latin for swan so perhaps whoever named it was referring to “swansong” or perhaps the fact the Tory Government was just swanning about when it came to proper preparedness.

Officially described as “the national Tier 1 Pandemic Influenza exercise”, Cygnus was a look at the “preparedness of health systems in a pandemic scenario, with involvement at ministerial level by UK Government and the devolved administrations in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland,” as the NHS England Board report stated.

The report on Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response (EPRR) after Cygnus described how the exercise was set seven weeks into a severe pandemic outbreak. It challenged the NHS “to review its response to an overwhelmed service with reduced staff availability”.

The NHS England Board was told: “Plans are currently being revised to incorporate the learning from this exercise and ensure our continued preparedness for future pandemic influenza outbreaks. We are also continuing the challenging work around the management of surge and escalation decision making processes.”

Similar reports went to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments and the Scottish Government says the report was acted upon.


IT is important to note that Cygnus was not the first exercise in testing the response to a pandemic.

As long ago as 2004 the Civil Contingencies Act brought in legislation requiring local authorities and the NHS, among others, to have proper resilience planning.

The act was brought in after Tony Blair’s deputy prime minister John Prescott ordered a review of planning following the fuel protests and floods in 2000 and the following year’s foot and mouth outbreak. It is under that Act that the UK and devolved governments have assumed emergency powers to deal with coronavirus.

There were reports on the planned response to possible pandemics in 2011, 2012 and 2014, and Operation Silver Swan, for example, tested Scotland’s response to a pandemic influenza outbreak in 2015.

Cygnus went further, examining what would happen to Britain in the event of a virus similar to influenza arriving in the country from Asia.

Researchers from Imperial College London homed in on the anticipated response seven weeks into the outbreak.

They found an overwhelming need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for medical staff as well as critical care beds and ventilators for patients.

The expert epidemiologists also predicted that mortuaries would be overflowing.

Their conclusion was that the NHS simply did not have the equipment or bed capacity for such a pandemic.


YOU would have to ask Jeremy Hunt, who was health secretary at the time. Not only was there no action by the UK Government, it did not publish the official report of Exercise Cygnus and still have not done so.

At the time, Hunt and his colleagues in government were wedded to the austerity ideal and the recommended investment in PPE, critical care beds and ventilators just didn’t happen.

As the New Statesman reported last week: “Despite the severe failings exposed by Exercise Cygnus, the government’s planning for a future pandemic did not change after December 2016 – at least not formally.”


IN three words, a public inquiry. There’s no point in investigating the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK at the moment because, quite rightly, every governmental effort must be expended in combating the virus and saving lives.

When this is all over, however, there must be a full independent inquiry into why Cygnus was ignored, why the then Tory government failed to act on it; why this Tory Government reacted so slowly to the outbreak; why Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson took us down the wrong road of “herd immunity” and similar nonsense which delayed the correct tactics; why there are still not enough tests being done; and why there were not sufficient ventilators and PPE for the NHS when Cygnus clearly predicted the need for them.

Lives have been lost, perhaps needlessly, so a public inquiry is needed to ensure that we all know what happened. And if Boris Johnson doesn’t set one up, then Nicola Sturgeon should. Its aim should be simple: finding the truth, establishing the facts and making science-based recommendations to ensure that the next pandemic – and there will be more – does not do the same damage as Covid-19.

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