Ministers should engage in annual ‘germ warfare’ exercises, says Labour health spokesman

Ministers and Whitehall officials should engage in annual “germ warfare” exercises to test the UK’s readiness to cope with a pandemic, Labour’s health secretary is set to warn. 

In a speech on Tuesday Jonathan Ashworth will warn that under-resourcing, underfunding and a failure to invest in public health meant the NHS was unable to cope with the Covid pandemic.   

And he will say that the government must have statutory duties to plan, audit and invest in pandemic response. 

“Crucially, in the same way that the military do regular war game exercises, I’m arguing that ministers and officials should do annual germ gaming exercises,” Mr Ashworth told the Telegraph ahead of the speech.   

Earlier this year the Telegraph revealed that the government took part in a germ warfare game in 2016 called Exercise Cygnus, which revealed huge shortcomings in the UK’s preparedness.

It showed there was a drastic shortage of protective equipment, ventilators and critical care beds, and morgues were overflowing.  The findings were deemed “too terrifying” to be published and were never properly acted on.   

Mr Ashworth said the government’s plans should be subject to annual audit, with an independent Office for Budget Responsibility-type body reporting to parliament on the UK’s health resilience.   

“It would look at health care capacity and resilience in society and should report that to parliament. It would mean the secretary of state is held to account for the state of health care capacity,” Mr Ashowrth said.   

In the speech at the Institute of Public Policy Research Mr Ashworth will highlight how the UK went into the Covid crisis with 17,000 fewer NHS beds than in 2010, spending on health substantially lower than the historical average and with a health workforce smaller compared to other advanced economies.   

“We didn’t have enough health and care capacity, we didn’t have enough beds or intensive care beds. We emptied beds by discharging patients into care homes and we pivoted from a health service to a Covid service. That’s not sustainable and these are the things we need to be focusing on exposing and scrutinising,” he said.

He said that readiness had to move up the government agenda as the world is living in an “age of pandemics”.  

“In the last 20 years we have been seeing these zoonotic diseases – where diseases jump from animals to humans – more regularly. We’ve had Ebola, Zika, Nipah and we’ve had three coronavirus outbreaks: Sars, Mers and now Covid-19,” he said.   

As well as ensuring that the UK is better prepared as a nation the government must also work internationally on improved surveillance response systems, Mr Ashworth added.   

“If there’s an unusual respiratory outbreak in a hospital in South America, systems need to be alerted and we need to quickly understand what it is and act on it. We need global surveillance systems that depend on international cooperation,” he said. 

“I’m not saying there is going to be another pandemic in the next couple of years but we will be seeing more of these infectious diseases break out and one of them could turn into a pandemic,” he said. 

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