Covid-19: Ex-medical tsar Dame Sally Davies says UK was ill-prepared

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File photo from 2018 showing Chief medical officer for England Dame Sally Davies

File photo from 2018 showing Chief medical officer for England Dame Sally Davies

The UK’s former chief medical officer says the country was ill-prepared for Covid-19, and government officials told her a coronavirus from Asia would ‘never travel this far’.

Dame Sally Davies said she asked health experts whether the country should rehearse for an outbreak of a coronavirus in 2015, when she still held the ‘nanny-in-chief’ position.

The Public Health England (PHE) officials assured her a coronavirus would never reach the UK in large numbers, she claimed.  

Coronaviruses include SARS, which caused an epidemic in the early 2000s in China but never reached the UK, and MERS, a deadly disease first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

But PHE, which is being axed because of a string of failures in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, said the claims were not true, adding: ‘Dame Sally Davies participated in exercises which planned specifically for a MERS coronavirus scenario in the UK amongst other health threats.’

Dame Sally, 70, is expected to accuse PHE of misleading the Government into practising for the ‘wrong pandemic’ at a public inquiry into Covid-19.

In her first interview since handing over the job to Professor Chris Whitty in September last year, she added: ‘Compared to other countries, we’ve been found wanting'

In her first interview since handing over the job to Professor Chris Whitty in September last year, she added: ‘Compared to other countries, we’ve been found wanting’

She told The Daily Telegraph: ‘We didn’t practise how to stop a coronavirus spreading because we were told by Public Health England that the next big one would be influenza, and they didn’t believe it could be stopped.

‘One day we will certainly get another flu pandemic, so we prepared for that, and I think we prepared well.

‘But none of the experts seemed to think a coronavirus would be relevant.’  

Dame Sally, nicknamed ‘nanny-in-chief’ for her bold public health interventions, was succeeded by Professor Chris Whitty in October.

In her first interview since handing over the job to Professor Whitty, who has become a face for guiding Britain through the coronavirus crisis, Dame Sally said: ‘Compared to other countries, we’ve been found wanting.

‘We were not as well prepared as we should have been. I think the public deserves to know everything.’


A secret Whitehall document condemning the UK’s ‘insufficient’ preparedness for a health pandemic such as the coronavirus outbreak was published in May. 

The analysis, based on a 2016 simulation of a flu pandemic, codenamed Exercise Cygnus, identified a ‘lack of joint tactical-level plans’ for a public health emergency, with demand for services outstripping local capacity. 

The 57-page Public Health England report, leaked to The Guardian, also identified concerns about the expectation that the social care system would be able to provide the level of support needed in the event of a serious outbreak.  

The Cygnus drill document found the possible impacts of a pandemic were not universally understood across Whitehall.

It said: ‘The UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic that will have a nationwide impact across all sectors.’ 

Ministers have acknowledged the presence of the Cygnus report throughout the coronavirus pandemic, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock telling reporters last month that ‘everything that was appropriate to do was done’. 

The exercise, which lasted less than a week, involved participants responding to a dummy pandemic scenario in real time, engaging with the press and communicating messages to the public. 

The document analysing the efficacy of the simulation identified four key lessons, including to be more prepared for a pandemic by better understanding of how the public would react to a worst-case scenario health crisis. 

It also stated the Government was ‘lacking’ the capability and capacity to surge resources into key areas were a pandemic to be declared. 

Dame Sally told the paper the country was ‘not as well prepared as we should have been’, claiming health chiefs had not recognised coronaviruses as a threat.

As a result, there were no plans in place to scale up mass testing or build a robust contact tracing system – unlike other countries who managed to keep Covid-19 largely under control. 

PHE focused on the risk of a flu outbreak, practisting a simulation codenamed ‘Exercise Cygnus’ in 2016 in which officials responded to a fake pandemic in real time.

The scenario was set seven weeks into a pandemic, when hospitals were already overwhelmed, meaning ministers did not practise what to do to stop a highly contagious disease spreading in the first place. 

The existence of Exercise Cygnus only became apparent earlier this year after being kept secret for years. 

A leaked report identified a ‘lack of joint tactical-level plans’ for a public health emergency, with demand for services outstripping local capacity. It also discussed concerns about the care home and social sector if an outbreak occurred. 

Dame Sally said: ‘I did ask during a conversation in my office in around 2015, should we do Sars? But I was told no, because it wouldn’t reach us properly. They said it would die out and would never travel this far.

‘So I did ask, but it was the Public Health England people who said we didn’t need to do it, and I’ll say that to Parliament.

‘That advice meant we never seriously sat down and said: “Will we have a massive pandemic of something else?”‘

A PHE spokesman said: ‘The claim that PHE ignored threats other than flu is wrong.

‘Dame Sally Davies participated in exercises which planned specifically for a coronavirus scenario in the UK, among other health threats. 

‘In all of our time working with Dame Sally Davies we agreed that the country should prepare for all health protection threats including infections caused by different organisms such as coronaviruses.’ 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson committed to an independent public inquiry into the coronavirus response in July – for which Dame Sally will be a key witness. 

PHE was officially axed in August by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who claimed the decision was not to do with the agency’s handling of the pandemic.

The remains of PHE will be subsumed into the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), which will also involve the Joint Biosecurity Centre — an agency created in May and ran out of the Cabinet Office.  

PHE’s work on obesity and other public health issues will be handed over to local councils and GPs from the spring.

A government spokesperson said: ‘This is an unprecedented pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice, to protect the NHS and save lives.

‘There is a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes, all of which would not be possible without the years of preparation undertaken for a pandemic, including flu and other infectious diseases like MERS, SARS and Ebola.’

A spokesman for Public Health England added planning for an influenza pandemic was the focus as it was top of the National Risk Assessment. 

It comes after a further 33,470 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus were announced in the UK yesterday, the highest daily figure recorded since the outbreak began.

There have been 67,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.  


Public Health England has come under fire for a number of its responses to the Covid-19 crisis.

Its directors have tried to divert blame, claiming that major decisions are taken by Government ministers in the Department of Health, but the body has been accused of being controlling.

These are some of the failures for which PHE has been blamed:

Stopping mass testing and tracing

On March 12 the Government announced it would no longer test everybody who was thought to have coronavirus, and it would stop tracking the contacts of the majority of cases to try and stop the spread of the disease.

As a result, Britain effectively stopped tracking the virus and it was allowed to spiral out of control.

Conservative MP David Davis said that was ‘precisely the wrong thing to do’.

Professor Yvonne Doyle, PHE’s medical director, told MPs in May: ‘It was a decision that was come to because of the sheer scale of cases in the UK.’

She added: ‘We knew that if this epidemic continued to increase we would certainly need more capacity.’

PHE said: ‘Widespread contact tracing was stopped because increased community transmission meant it was no longer the most useful strategy.’

Counting deaths inaccurately 

It emerged last month that Public Health England had been counting coronavirus deaths by checking a list of people who had ever tested positive to see if they were still alive.

The cause of someone’s death, nor how long it had been since their positive test result, were not taken into account and the agency was accused of ‘over-exaggerating’ the numbers of people who were dying each day.

An investigation into the method by the Department of Health saw 5,000 deaths wiped from the UK’s official tally.  

The statistical flaw was uncovered by Oxford University’s Professor Carl Heneghan and Dr Yoon Loke, from the University of East Anglia. 

Matt Hancock has since brought the figures in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland, which only attribute deaths to Covid-19 if it occurs within a month of their diagnosis. 

Lack of contact tracing capacity

Papers published by Government scientists on SAGE revealed that PHE only had the capacity to cope with five new cases a week on February 18.

Only nine cases had been diagnosed at the time.

PHE experts said modelling suggested capacity could increased ten-fold to 50 new cases a week — allowing them to contact 8,000 people a day.

SAGE said: ‘When there is sustained transmission in the UK, contact tracing will no longer be useful.’

Britain’s cases jumped started to jump by 50 each day at the beginning of March.

Pledged antibody tests in March

PHE’s Professor Sharon Peacock said on March 25 that the UK was on course to have antibody tests available to the public that month.

She confirmed the Government had bought 3.5million of the tests and was evaluating their quality.

They could be available to the public ‘within days’, she said at a Downing Street briefing.

Three months later, however, and they are still not a reality. Officials have since decided there are no tests good enough available, and there is no proof that the results will be of any use to the public.

Testing efforts slowed by ‘centralised’ lab approach

Scientists in private labs, universities and research institutes across the country said in April that their offers to help with coronavirus testing had fallen on deaf ears.

Only eight PHE laboratories and some in NHS hospitals were being used to analyse tests during the start of the crisis.

‘Little ship’ labs had tools to process tests and could have increased testing capacity rapidly if officials had agreed to work with them, they said.

But it took Britain until the end of April to manage more than 100,000 tests in a day. Germany had been managing the feat for weeks by utilising private laboratories. 

PHE says it did not ‘constrain or seek to control any laboratory either public, university or commercial from conducting testing for Covid-19’.

It claimed that it requested officials changed testing methods in January to allow for any testing facility to conduct diagnostic tests.

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