COVID: how incorrect assumptions and poor foresight hampered the UK's pandemic preparedness

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Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, has told the recently opened COVID-19 Inquiry that the UK's pandemic planning was "completely wrong". According to Hancock, the doctrine was "to plan for the consequences of a disaster" rather than stopping or containing the virus in the first place. While there is truth in this claim, it doesn’t give us the whole picture. Hancock was repeatedly asked during his appearance about something called Exercise Cygnus. In 2016, the UK government engaged in a series of exercises including Cygnus to assess their preparedness and response to a pandemic outbreak of influenza.

As the global scale of the COVID pandemic was starting to become apparent in the first half of February 2020, the UK applied the lessons from these exercises to plan for a wide range of scenarios. Based on the scientific evidence available at that time, they anticipated that a "reasonable worst-case scenario" could involve up to 80% of the UK population being infected (with only 50% of those infected showing symptoms). However, it was hoped that the majority of cases would have relatively mild disease. This information was contained in planning assumptions labelled "officially sensitive" that were shared between a range of healthcare authorities and that I had access to at the time. Some of the figures were also published in the media.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages4
Specialist publicationThe Conversation
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2023


  • COVID-19
  • pandemic preparedness
  • pandemic planning
  • herd immunity
  • case fatality rate
  • personal protective equipment
  • dynamic capability


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