The government “disinvested” in the UK’s public health system, leaving the country lacking in “resilience” for a pandemic, England’s former chief medical officer (CMO) admitted today.
Sally Davies, who was CMO under David Cameron and Theresa May between 2010 and 2019, told the official Covid inquiry: “Compared to similar countries, per hundred thousand population, we were at the bottom of the table on the number of doctors, number of nurses, number of beds, number of IT units, number of respirators [and] ventilators.”
It was this lack of healthcare resilience, coupled with the fact that the “government didn’t do the plans”, which left the UK vulnerable to Covid-19, she said.
The former CMO – who was succeeded by Chris Whitty five months before the UK recorded its first Covid case – was also questioned about two government exercises that took place in 2014 and 2016 to test the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic.
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
Davies requested the first of those, Exercise Alice, in response to an outbreak of the coronavirus MERS in Asia. The exercise flagged the “possible need” for the UK to be prepared to put in place quarantining and mass contact-tracing.
Hugo Keith KC, chief counsel for the inquiry, asked why these recommendations were not put into effect. Davies said she “expected them to be” implemented but “it appears they weren’t”.
The second pandemic exercise, Cygnus, tested the UK’s resilience to an influenza pandemic and found the country’s plans, policies and capability were not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands that such an outbreak would bring, Keith added.
The former CMO also admitted she was not aware that “a bare majority” of the 22 recommendations made in response to Cygnus had been completed.
Davies also apologised to the families of those who lost family members during the pandemic.
“It wasn’t just the deaths,” she said. “It was the way they died. It was horrible… it was harrowing and it remains horrible.”
George Osborne, the UK chancellor between 2010 and 2016, and Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office’s minister for government policy during the same period, gave evidence earlier in the day.
Osborne rejected the notion that his policy of austerity had damaged the UK’s health and social care system prior to the pandemic: “Money is not the solution to all public health problems.”
Osborne echoed ex-PM David Cameron’s statements yesterday, stating that the austerity programme the pair oversaw gave Boris Johnson’s government the “fiscal space to spend £370bn” to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19.
Deputy counsel to the inquiry Kate Blackwell KC questioned Osborne about the Treasury’s involvement in the two pandemic exercises, Alice and Cygnus, telling the hearing in central London that “the Treasury wasn’t even present” in Exercise Alice.
Blackwell went on to say that, for Exercise Cygnus, “there is no evidence whatsoever of any participation [by the Treasury] or any evidence of any lessons to be learned”.
Osborne admitted that the Treasury “didn’t plan for a lockdown”.
Letwin gave evidence in the morning, calling for the government to create the post of ‘minister for resilience’.
Letwin oversaw emergency resilience, preparedness and response during his time as a Cabinet Office minister between 2010 and 2016. But he said the “revolving door” of ministers and officials left little time for resilience training to be conducted and effectively implemented.
He was also questioned about an official briefing given to him when he was in office, which claimed that “the applicability of pandemic influenza planning to other scenarios is good”.
The former minister responded: “I should probably just have paid no attention whatsoever to this advice.”
He added that it was “a matter of lasting regret” he had not probed the matter of pandemic planning further.
The inquiry continues.