Eleven pandemic exercises were carried out before Covid, government admits

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Eleven pandemic exercises were conducted between 2015 and 2019, the government has revealed – but it is refusing to release the results on national security grounds.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has been accused of “covering up secret reports” during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The trials included Exercise Alice, which in 2016 tested the UK’s readiness to cope with Middle East Respiratory syndrome (Mers), another type of coronavirus.

Until now, the government has admitted only to having run Operation Cygnus, also in 2016, which over three days simulated a flu pandemic.

The exercises came to light after a doctor campaigned for transparency on how well the government had prepared the NHS for a pandemic.

Moosa Qureshi submitted a request under Freedom of Information law asking for information about any pandemic operations.

His request was rejected on grounds of national security, so he asked for an internal review.

Now Public Health England (PHE) has told him the national security exemption is no longer applicable.

The pandemic exercises that have been disclosed also include three on dealing with an outbreak of Ebola, three on a flu pandemic, two on coping with lassa, a viral haemorrhagic fever, and two on bird flu.

PHE is refusing to release the results of the tests, saying to do so would damage national security.

Dr Qureshi, a hospital consultant, said: “The health secretary told Parliament that Exercise Cygnus looked at UK preparedness for a flu pandemic – not other pandemics – but the truth is that he’s covering up multiple secret reports on preparedness for other pandemics, including a coronavirus pandemic.”

Pandemic preparedness is improved by transparency and public scrutiny, he said.

“We’re facing a third pandemic wave and there will be future pandemics. Let’s stop playing politics and get scientific with this.”

Last month former No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings  claimed that government “secrecy” in the Covid crisis “contributed greatly to the catastrophe”.

The Independent has asked the Department for Health and Social Care to respond.

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