Lawyers acting for an NHS doctor who is taking a legal case against the UK Government seeking the publication of the findings of Exercise Cygnus have issued a letter asking for an explanation of how The Sun newspaper has had sight of extracts of the previously undisclosed Cygnus Report.
Law firm Leigh Day, acting on behalf of Dr Moosa Qureshi, issued a press release on Tuesday evening saying they have asked for confirmation of whether an investigation into an unauthorised leak will take place.
They have also repeated their request for a full copy of the Cygnus Report.
Leigh Day solicitor Tessa Gregory, who is acting on behalf of her client Dr Moosa Qureshi said: ‘We wrote to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care last week, requesting the publication of the findings of Exercise Cygnus, giving due notice that if we didn’t receive a reply by Monday 27 April at 4pm we would proceed to a Judicial Review.
‘The Government asked for further time to respond our request and yet in today’s edition of The Sun newspaper, extracts from the findings of Exercise Cygnus have been published.
‘It is time for the Government to be fully transparent. Our client, his colleagues in the healthcare professions and the British public deserve nothing less.’
Dr Moosa Qureshi stated: ‘The Government’s position is now untenable and if it continues to refuse to publish the Cygnus Report I consider it would be profoundly disrespectful both to the healthcare professionals who are fighting Covid-19 on the frontline and to those healthcare professionals who have already lost their lives.’
Exercise Cygnus took place in October 2016 as a simulation exercise to test the NHS’ preparedness for coping with a flu pandemic. The shortcomings it apparently revealed have been reported in the national press to be ‘too terrifying’ to be made public.
Despite making several references to lessons learned from Exercise Cygnus, the Government has steadfastly refused to make the findings public in the weeks since Covid-19 enforced a national lockdown.
A Freedom of Information request to see the report made by someone else has already been refused under Section 35 (1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act on the grounds that ‘the release of this information would prohibitively impact the ability of Ministers to meet with officials and external stakeholders to discuss ongoing policy development’.
Now Dr Qureshi is calling for the publication of the findings under the Health Secretary’s power under s.2A of the National Health Services Act 2006 and Article 10 and s.6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which it is argued provide mechanisms for the provision of information separately to the Freedom of Information Act.
The Government previously argued that the findings should not be published to avoid public fear that might be caused by it. Dr Qureshi argues that there is exceptionally strong public interest in the publication of the report given the lessons and recommendations are directly relevant to the system and procedures that have been developed, and are presently being developed.
He further argues that any public fear about the content of any findings ‘has plainly evaporated now that the country and the world is experiencing a deadly pandemic, everyone in the country are confined to their homes by law and the National Health service is on a war footing ’.
Dr Qureshi points to the fact that the Government has repeatedly and expressly relied on the existence of the exercise and content of reports from the Cygnus exercise in defending its response to, and preparedness for, Covid-19.
Former Government advisors who have seen the findings have also made reference to it in public, yet contents of any report from the exercise have still been kept from the public.
Dr Qureshi said: ‘I am a frontline NHS doctor and I specialise in blood disorders.
‘I provide care for patients with leukaemia who have done particularly badly when infected with Covid-19. I have also used a retrovirus during my PhD research into leukaemia.
‘Managing a viral pandemic is completely different from fighting against acts of aggression by military or terrorist organisations. There is no persuasive argument for secrecy when managing a healthcare crisis.
‘Successful science and healthcare provision depend on transparency, peer review, collaboration and engagement with the public.
‘I believe that if the Government had followed the Cygnus Exercise by engaging transparently with health and social care partners, with industry and with the public, then many of the deaths of my heroic healthcare colleagues and the wider public during the Covid-19 pandemic could have been avoided.
‘For this reason, I strongly believe that we need to see transparency throughout the entire process of preparation and delivery of care during this pandemic, including the social care sector and NHS Nightingale Hospitals.
‘It is important to bear in mind that Covid-19 represents a progression in a series of viral pandemics during the last ten years, and there remains the possibility of future pandemics with novel viruses.
‘Full disclosure of the Cygnus Report is essential because it can inform not only the management of this crisis and its aftermath, but also help us plan for future influenza pandemics.’
Leigh Day solicitor Tessa Gregory said: ‘Our client believes that the NHS workforce and the wider public has a right to know what Exercise Cygnus made clear to the Department of Health and Social Care about what needed to be done to keep NHS staff and the public safe in a pandemic.
‘The exercise was carried out precisely in order to anticipate the kind of situation we now find ourselves in.
‘It beggars belief that the information the exercise revealed is now being kept hidden when a public debate about its contents may well inform important decisions about how to best protect lives going forward.’
The full details of what happened during the exercise remain classified, but the country’s then Chief Medical Officer stated that serious problems would be caused during a pandemic thanks to the lack of medical ventilators and the logistics around disposing of bodies.
The exercise showed that a flu-like pandemic could cause the NHS to collapse.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week declined to commit to publishing the Cygnus findings.
He said it was not something that ‘springs to mind’ when asked during the Downing Street press conference if he had read the results of the October 2016 exercise.
In 2011, the Government set out its approach to a coronavirus-like pandemic in a UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy.
Planning was driven in part by an assessment of a ‘reasonable worst case’ scenario and covered the need to stockpile medicines and equipment, and prepare hospitals for a surge in patients with the disease.
This was backed up by a Health and Social Care Influenza Pandemic Preparedness and Response document produced a year later, which drew from the experience of the H1N1 influenza (swine flu) outbreak in 2009.
In 2013, influenza pandemic guidance was issued for local planners which warned of the possibility of school closures in such an event.
Public Health England’s (PHE) Pandemic Influenza Response Plan was published in 2014 and highlighted procedures for rolling out stockpiles of PPE as well as the use of ‘just in time’ procurement to supplement them.
Then in October 2016, the Government ran the three-day Cygnus exercise that tested the country’s ability to handle an influenza pandemic.
The findings from the Cygnus exercise have not been made public, but they revealed a shortage of critical care beds and PPE – and that the subsequent recommendations were not acted upon.