Ministers were last year warned of the grave consequences a future pandemic would wreak on the UK, a leaked Cabinet Office briefing had revealed.
Tens of thousands of deaths, crippling economic costs and creaking public services were predicted in the 2019 National Security Risk Assessment which predicted the fallout of a potential health emergency.
Almost foreboding the current coronavirus crisis, it recommended stockpiling personal protective equipment and ramping up the infrastructure needed to conduct mass contact tracing.
The 600-page report, which was leaked to the Guardian, will further fuel accusations the government was caught flat-footed by the health emergency because of a lack of long-term planning.
Chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance, one of the key figures steering the Covid-19 fightback, signed off the report last year and impressed the need for ‘robust’ plans to deal with a pandemic.
The assessment said a relatively mild outbreak of ‘moderate virulence’ could lead to 65,600 deaths and could cost the UK £2.35trillion.
It is not clear if Boris Johnson was prime minister when the report was written, or whether it was given to ministers serving the previous administration under Theresa May.
The bombshell revelations came as Britain braced for its coronavirus death toll to hit the grim 20,000 milestone.
As the country continues to weather the social and economic effects of the virus, the leaked report revealed:
- Half the population would exhibit symptoms of the virus, while even more would be infected yet be asymptomatic;
- The pandemic would unfold over three waves, with each wave lasting roughly 15 weeks;
- Once the pandemic eventually passed, the hit to public services would take years to repair;
- A huge public backlash would skewer a government who were deemed to have bungled the crisis response.
Ministers were warned last year that the Government needed robust plans in place to deal with a potential pandemic virus, according to a leaked Cabinet Office briefing which was signed off by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (pictured at Downing Street press briefing)
The document, marked ‘official, sensitive’, wargames potential scenarios the government would have to respond to, depending on the severity of the virus
The document, marked ‘official, sensitive’, wargames potential scenarios the government would have to respond to, depending on the severity of the virus.
An ‘influenza pandemic’, which is the closest to the coronavirus outbreak, was judged to pose a ‘very high’ risk.
Pointing to rapid infection rates, the briefing says: ‘Up to 50 per cent of the population may fall ill with up to 20 per cent of people off work during the peak weeks, causing a significant impact on business continuity.
‘Critical infrastructure may also be affected during peak periods. There would be a huge surge in demand for health and social care services.’
The Cabinet Office declined to comment on the report. A spokesman said: ‘We do not comment on leaks.’
According to the Guardian, the NSRA recommendations included stockpiling personal protective equipment, setting up advance purchase agreements for other essential kit, establishing procedures for disease surveillance and contract-tracing, and drawing up plans to manage a surge in deaths.
The need for plans to help British nationals abroad and repatriate them to the UK was also said to have been raised as a priority.
The NSRA looked at both the the risk of a viral flu pandemic and also a coronavirus outbreak – both Sars and Mers were coronaviruses – although this was considered less damaging.
NSRA recommendations included stockpiling personal protective equipment (medics wearing PPE at a coronavirus testing site)
The document included a series of ‘reasonable worst case scenarios’ for the spread of a flu-like viral pandemic.
It suggested it would play out in three waves – each expected to last 15 weeks and with the peak occurring in weeks six and seven of each wave.
Half of the population would be infected and experience symptoms of the disease during one or move of the waves.
However, the actual numbers infected would be higher as some cases would be asymptomatic.
The NSRA said a pandemic of ‘moderate virulence’ could lead to 65,600 deaths, while the cost to the UK could run to £2.35 trillion.
Even after the pandemic was over, it said that it could take months or even years for health and social care services to recover.