A GOVERNMENT focus on Brexit “crowded out and prevented” the work that was needed to prepare for the next pandemic, the lead lawyer to the Covid-19 Inquiry has suggested.

Hugo Keith KC told the official inquiry that work around a possible no-deal exit from the European Union may have drained “the resources and capacity” that were needed for pandemic planning.

He told chair of the inquiry, Baroness Heather Hallett: “The pandemic struck the United Kingdom just as it was leaving the European Union.

“That departure required an enormous amount of planning and preparation, particularly to address what were likely to be the severe consequences of a no-deal exit on food and medicine supplies, travel and transport, business borders and so on.

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“It is clear that such planning, from 2018 onwards, crowded out and prevented some or perhaps a majority of the improvements that central government itself understood were required to be made to resilience planning and preparedness.

“Did the attention therefore paid to the risks of a no-deal exit – Operation Yellowhammer as it was known – drain the resources and capacity that should have been continuing the fight against the next pandemic, that should have been utilised in preparing the United Kingdom for civil emergency?

“Or did all that generic and operational planning in fact lead to people being better trained and well marshalled and, in fact, better prepared to deal with Covid and also to the existence of improved trade, medicine and supply links?

“My lady on the evidence so far, but it will be a matter for you, we very much fear that it was the former.”

The Operation Yellowhammer document, which was published by the Government in 2019, set out a series of “reasonable worst-case assumptions” about what would happen if the UK did not reach a deal with the EU.

It suggested there would be real risks of a rise in public disorder, higher food prices and reduced medical supplies.

Keith has spent Tuesday morning detailing the events that led up to the first Covid lockdown in March 2020.

A lawyer for the Northern Ireland Department of Health acknowledged Brexit preparations “did divert some of our focus away from pandemic preparedness planning, as was no doubt the case for all four nations of the United Kingdom”.

But Neasa Murnaghan KC told the inquiry there were also some advantages associated with the EU exit preparations, including recently trained staff for emergencies and increased buffer stocks of medicines.

The inquiry also heard from bereaved families in a series of moving video interviews, which included harrowing stories of people dying alone from Covid.

Lady Hallett vowed that those who suffered in the pandemic will “always be at the heart of the inquiry”.