There are many things that are hidden from public view.
Some rightly remain classified and will do so for the foreseeable future. But some remain classified because they expose the sheer incompetence of certain officials and governments, even though they could have made the public more aware in hindsight of future crises. Exercise Cygnus is a perfect example of a critical document that has been buried so deep by the government that it will take a mountain of political pressure to uncover it.
Exercise Cygnus was a 3-day simulation that was carried out by the British government in 2016. Its aim was to estimate and contextualise a hypothetical influenza pandemic outbreak in the UK and how the NHS and government would react and cope under the extreme conditions it would theoretically bring. The full results of the simulation have remained classified since publication, however various sources have exposed some key findings. These findings, if published in the public sector in 2016 instead of being classified, could have helped both the NHS and the public envision what a potential pandemic would look like and how it would affect our everyday lives.
The exercise used a hypothetical H2N2 influenza virus as the source of the pandemic, which spread rapidly around the world and caused severe acute respiratory illness, according to the model. In this sense, it is not too dissimilar from what we are all experiencing now. The aim of the simulation was to “assess the preparedness and response to an influenza pandemic in the UK”. The various objectives covered the organisation of both the government and the NHS, the strategic coordination in regard to communication between government and the public, and the provision of PP equipment, ventilators, and testing kits.
The results that have been uncovered so far are already damning. One government official, when asked why the results remained classified, replied that the results were “too terrifying” for the public to see. Others cited “security concerns” as their reason. According to the Telegraph, when the results were published to the government in 2016, senior ministers at the time (including the then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Prime Minister Theresa May) were informed that the simulation exposed the fact that in the event of a pandemic outbreak, the UK would be overwhelmed.
Professor Dame Sally Davies, who was Chief Medical Officer at the time, gave a speech at the World Institution Summit of Health in which she admitted that “we have 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 also warned that the world had become extremely vulnerable and in the event of a global pandemic, global society would struggle to deal with the effects and aftermath.
The results implied that the NHS would be overwhelmed and subsequently collapse under the strain of the influenza. That there would be a lack of ICUs, ventilators and PPE to combat the virus, and that the morgue capacity would quickly exceed capacity.
The simulation sits in stark and horrifying similarity to what we are experiencing now. The same team that prepared and tracked the simulation are tracking COVID-19 to this day. The very team that tracked the hypothetical virus are now doing the same to an actual coronavirus. There are many world leaders who have said that this pandemic we are currently experiencing was a surprise to us all. But it couldn’t have been a surprise to the UK government, who had the results of a simulation using a very similar virus four years before it actually happened. And what was done?
The government, instead of acting on the results and strengthening the NHS and other vital public sectors, just ignored it. The NHS and public sectors continued to be crippled by the Austerity that they had already endured for six grizzly years, without any aid. So why didn’t they act on the science that they cling so tightly to now?
A) Was is naivety? Surely nothing like the simulation would ever exist in reality.
B) Was it fear and denial? The results were too frightening for the government to even comprehend and so the best way to deal with it would be to deny the facts and bury it deep in the archives.
C) Or was it ignorance? The results were blatantly ignored by a government too obsessed with Brexit to care otherwise.
We will never know why Exercise Cygnus was left to rot in a classified archive, instead of being acted upon in preparation for a pandemic that may or not have ever arrived. But better to have a strong public health sector and never experience a pandemic, than a crippled one that would be pushed to the limit four years later?
The Labour Party’s shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, has recently called for the results of Exercise Cygnus to be de-classified, so that we can all see what the simulation actually uncovered. This de-classification, as previously said, will require a mountain of political pressure not just from one MP, but from the entire country.
Exercise Cygnus, if published and acted upon, could have meant that when COVID-19 arrived on British shores in early 2020, then it would have been met with a well-informed, well-prepared, strong public health sector, and a government prepared to combat it effectively and clinically.
But why bother?
Ignorance is bliss.