Boris Johnson has ordered the army to plan for a potential quadruple crisis this winter involving a second spike of coronavirus, a serious flu outbreak, Brexit and flooding, it has emerged.
Army, councils and Whitehall all given August deadline for new contingency plan, as ministers try not to be caught out
The head of the Ministry of Defence’s strategy and operations revealed that Downing Street has asked for tabletop exercises, simulating a combination of emergencies, to be carried out by army chiefs, Whitehall departments and local authorities by the end of August in order to prepare for the possible winter disaster.
The revelation underscores the strenuous efforts going on behind the scenes in Whitehall and in civil resilience forums across the country to prepare the UK for a second peak of Covid-19 infections and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.
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It is in stark contrast to the Prime Minister’s public comments at his Downing Street press conference last week, in which he said it was possible the country could get back to normality by Christmas.
While local authorities have been given new powers to isolate sporadic outbreaks of Covid-19 and avoid a second nationwide peak in infections, the tabletop exercises involve planning for a reemergence of the disease across the country, together with the normal winter flu season which puts a strain on the NHS, the end of the transition period for Brexit on 31 December, which could lead to food shortages and queues at ports if there is no trade deal in place, as well as serious flooding.
Devastating floods hit the UK last winter, as well as in 2015/16 and 2013/14, and six of the 10 wettest years on record have taken place in the last 20 years.
Worst case scenarios
In evidence to the House of Lords public services committee, which is conducting an inquiry into lessons to be learned from the pandemic, Lieutenant General Douglas Chalmers, the head of military strategy and operations at the MoD, said the army was working with the new Joint Biosecurity Centre and Whitehall chiefs on planning for the worst case scenarios.
He said: “The [Covid-19] crisis is still very firmly with us, and definitely as we look towards the winter now, we know about the normal flu season … we’re obviously transitioning out of the EU, and we have our normal floods etc that come on.
“So we are looking at very heavily at how we do winter preparedness and we will support, because we run tabletop [TT] exercises very routinely, we will support some of the departmental tabletop exercising… in Whitehall and local resilience forums.
“No10 has been very clear those TT exercises need to be done by the end of August in order that we can learn from them and then act on some of those elements that have been brought forward.”
Lt Gen Chalmers said he hoped that the civil servants involved in those exercises would be kept in place for the winter because it was essential to “sustain the neural network”.
‘Terrible health outcomes’
In his evidence to the committee, former head of the Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell criticised the Government’s response to the pandemic, saying that there had been plenty of data but not enough analysis of that data.
He told peers: “I don’t think anyone can hide away from the fact that our health outcomes are terrible compared to the rest of the world. Part of the problem has been that we haven’t got the right people around the table at the right time.
“The Cabinet Office is very large compared to my day – if people think throwing people at this is the answer, then that clearly hasn’t worked.”
Lord O’Donnell said he was “really worried” that when the key decisions were made by ministers and scientists at Cobra “they only had half the story”. Ministers had a “fundamental problem” in that they “got the science but didn’t get the social science” and that the government introduced “one of the biggest changes to behaviour ever been brought about” in the lockdown without really understanding behavioural science, the crossbench peer said.
He said there was also a lack of “clear messages – if anyone knows what the clear message on masks is, please tell me”.
Lord O’Donnell added: “All those [Downing Street] press briefings with deaths in hospitals, they biased the whole thing towards hospitals, not care homes.”
Quadruple threat — The four potential crisis points
- Second wave of Covid-19. The worst case scenario is that infections reach epidemic levels again across the country, putting serious strain on the NHS.
- Serious winter flu outbreak. Each winter hospitals experience their busiest period because of flu, despite a nationwide vaccine programme. Flu kills around 8,000 people in the UK each year, but there were more serious flu seasons in the winters of 2010-11 and 2017-18.
- Brexit. If no trade deal with the EU is in place by New Year’s Day, there could be food shortages, panic buying and queues at ports for goods coming into the UK.
- Floods. Devastating floods hit the UK last winter, as well as in 2015-16 and 2013-14, and six of the 10 wettest years on record have occurred in the past 20 years. Last winter the military was brought in to help evacuate people from deluged homes and deliver food to stranded households, and at least 11 people died.
The committee also heard from Tracy Daszkiewicz, who was head of public health for Wiltshire during the Salisbury poisonings and was portrayed in the recent BBC drama on that crisis.
Ms Daszkiewicz, who is now deputy director of population health and wellbeing at Public Health England, told peers that she and her colleagues believed the novichok attack in 2018 would be the “biggest [crisis] of our career” adding: “Little did we know what 2020 had in store.”