Investigative Journalism and Independent Analysis (Established 2009)


Pandemic: Politicians ignored scientists’ warning in 2014

By Paul Coleman
March 2021

Rewind to 2014, seven years before the Coronavirus Pandemic. Duncan Selbie, then chief executive of Public Health England, warns the UK government: ‘The prospect of a flu pandemic is one of the highest risks faced by the UK.
‘We need to be confident that our planning and responses are sufficiently flexible to deal with every eventuality,’ says Selbie.
‘Ensuring the country is fully prepared and able to respond quickly is a top priority for Public Health England, and, of course, for the government.’ 

Selbie issues his warning to the Conservative government in Pandemic Influenza Response Plan 2014, a report published in August of that year by Public Health England. PHE is the agency that advises the government and the National Health Service on public health strategy.

The PHE report, prepared by Nick Phin, John Simpson, Gaynor Marshall, Hilary Moulsdale and Mike Laing, also states: Pandemic influenza has been classified by the Cabinet Office as the number one threat to the UK population.’

In their report the quintet warn‘As a guide, the impact could range from a 1918-type pandemic, where severe disease was mainly in young adults, to a 2009 pandemic, where the illness was mild in most groups of the population.’

Former PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie (Source: PHE).
Former PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie (Source: PHE).
By ‘mild’, the PHE quintet mean the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, which killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people around the world.
Less than one tenth of 1% of people infected with symptoms died, according to the World Health Organisation.
The PHE team state: ‘The 2009 H1N1 pandemic certainly tested our plans for dealing with new pandemic strains. Fortunately, it was a mild one.’
However, the PHE’s reference to the possible return of a 1918-19 type of pandemic – as a worst-case scenario – ought to have prompted UK politicians to act.
The ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic began in Kansas in the United States and spread throughout the world in 1918-19, killing at least 50 million people worldwide – and possibly as many as 100 million.
It spread in just under two years, killing ten times as many people who died actually fighting in World War I.
Many of those who died horribly from the 1918-19 avian flu were young adults.
The 1918-19 avian flu pandemic consisted of two waves.
Both waves spread rapidly; firstly amongst young American soldiers in World War I and then to poorer people living in bad housing in densely populated cities.
The pandemic quickly became global, transmitted mainly by soldiers, travelling on ships and trains.
It killed an estimated 17 million people in India alone.
Up to 3% of all people infected with flu symptoms died.
The virus killed 10% of 300,000 British troops infected towards the end of World War I. 
It also killed at least 18,000 Londoners, according to the Museum of London.
London hospitals were overrun with infected people.
Many doctors and nurses died.
The pandemic compelled a Conservative-Liberal coalition government to create the first ever ministry of health in 1919.

The 1918-19 avian flu pandemic first spread at a Kansas army base in the USA. (Source: Florence Nightingale Museum).
The 1918-19 avian flu pandemic first spread at a Kansas army base in the USA. (Source: Florence Nightingale Museum).


2014 recommendations
Phin and his colleagues recommended in their Pandemic Influenza Response Plan 2014 that government and the NHS prepare for a 2009-type pandemic and a worst-case scenario 1918-19 pandemic.
They listed an array of measures involving almost every branch of government and all hospitals and care homes. 
Notably, these measures included the provision of ‘personal protective equipment’ to staff in ‘health and communal care settings’.
What happened also to Exercise Cygnus?
PHE had scheduled this extensive pandemic response simulation for October 2014. 
Local NHS trusts were waiting for this multi-agency pandemic flu exercise involving ‘local resilience forums’. 
However, it is said this had to be postponed due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. 
Exercise Cygnus eventually took place in October 2016, delayed further by the May 2015 general election and the June 2016 Brexit referendum.
The simulation is said to have revealed shortages of intensive care beds, essential equipment and mortuary capacity.
Yet the full conclusions of Exercise Cygnus were never published.
The Global Health Council also warned in March 2018 that flu pandemic is the number one health risk to the world’s population, estimating three hundred million could die over just two years. 
Other virologists in 2018 warned that a 21st Century virus would transmit much faster and further as it would be borne by infected people travelling by air, contaminating further people at airports. 
A new virus, they said, could criss-cross the world in just 24 hours. 
The scientific consensus in 2018 was that a 21st Century flu pandemic would kill 1% of all infected people.
Scientists estimated that if one third of British people caught a deadly new influenza, then a 1 per cent fatality rate would result in some 200,000 people dying.
Barclay warning
Professor Wendy Barclay of Imperial College London, an expert in the field of respiratory influenza viruses, spoke in 2018 about the PHE’s plan, notably about its warning of a repeat of the 1918-19 pandemic as a worst-case scenario.
“You have to plan for the worst-case scenario, because if that one comes and you’re not ready for it, then you’re in big trouble,” said Barclay. 
“It’s reassuring to say we have ways of dealing with influenza pandemics today which were not available in 1918. But I think if we saw anything like a one per cent fatality rate then it would be a terrible experience for everyone.”
Barclay said this whilst holding the Pandemic Influenza Response Plan 2014 in her hand.
Three years on, we are now in the midst of the ongoing terrible carnage of Covid-19.
The UK government states the number of people with Covid-19 on their death certificate now stands at 140,062 people (as of Monday, 8 March 2021).
Some 4,223,232 people have been infected. The UK became known as ‘plague island’.
The decision to place hospital patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 into care homes – and the lack of personal protection equipment for hospital and care home workers – led Amnesty International to criticise the UK government in a report, As If Expendable, for its ‘failure to protect older people in care homes during the Covid-19 pandemic’.
Between 2 March and 12 June 2020, 18,562 care home residents in England died from Covid-19, some 40% of all Covid-19 deaths in England during that period.
That represented a 46% increase in ‘excess deaths’ compared with the same period in previous years.
Amnesty International stated ‘the UK government have taken decisions and adopted policies during the Covid-19 pandemic that have directly violated the human rights of older residents in care homes in England – notably their right to life and their right to health’.
Health workers
Covid-19 is also now believed to have killed over 900 health and social care workers, according to Nursing Notes.
Covid-19 has also killed bus drivers, postal service workers and other workers in essential sectors.
All of this we now know.
But we still know little about the UK government’s response to the PHE’s Pandemic Influenza Response Plan 2014.
David Cameron was Prime Minister and Jeremy Hunt was Health Secretary.
What attention did these two politicians also pay to the later warnings made by Barclay and other scientists? 
What also happened to the actual authors of Pandemic Influenza Response Plan 2014?
Nick Phin is now deputy director of PHE’s National Infection Service. 
John Simpson is deputy director of PHE’s Health Protection Directorate and is head of the Emergency Response Department. 
Hilary Moulsdale is exercise manager in emergency preparedness and response, based at Porton Down, the emergency response department for England.
Gaynor Marshall retired as manager of supra regional emergency preparedness manager and national support in September 2014.
Duncan Selbie is now president of the International Association of National Public Health Institutes.
In August 2020, health secretary Matt Hancock announced PHE will be replaced by a new National Institute for Health Protection.
Hancock says the main aim of the new body will be “to give ourselves the best chance of beating this virus once and for all – and of spotting and being ready to respond to other health threats, now and in the future”.
‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing,’ politicians often tell the people when the people challenge them about past mistakes that cause present miseries.
Politicians use the cosy hindsight homily to excuse their procrastination and inaction.
UK government politicians could have chosen to abide by another homily; ‘pray for the best and prepare for the worst.’ 
In other words, foresight.
So, how did successive UK governments since 2014 respond to the ‘best scientific advice’ gifted to them by the authors of the Pandemic Influenza Response Plan 2014?
Did they complacently rely on a blind faith in anti-viral drugs, antibiotics and existing public health plans? 
Did they actually believe in the blithering myth of Britain’s island nation exceptionalism; of the kind that blathers, ‘No virus, please, we’re British.’
Or were politicians too busy pursuing their personal political ambitions and agendas?
NHS doctors and nurses are drilled daily about how they must own up to errors in real time in order to prevent unnecessary risks that might lead to a loss of life.
UK government politicians, who dictate on policy and pay to those doctors and nurses, behave antithetically to this code. 
This entire episode will likely add weight to those who argue the British political class instinctively seeks to cover up fatal errors facilitated by their own clouded judgement.
Will government politicians ever be rendered accountable for their failure to act on the scientific warning issued in the Pandemic Influenza Response Plan 2014?

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