Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has admitted the UK prepared for the wrong pandemic during his tenure by believing the next biggest threat would come from flu.
In an interview with The BMJ, Mr Hunt, who chairs the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, acknowledged that decisions he made while in office could have affected the UK’s ability to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Asked about current mistakes, he said: “We’ve really been on the back foot from the start on test and trace, and in some ways it dates back to the period when I was health secretary.”
In October 2016, the Government carried out Exercise Cygnus, which involved 950 officials from central and local government, the NHS, prisons and local emergency response planners.
The aim was to test plans for a future “worst-case-scenario” flu pandemic affecting up to 50% of the population and causing 200,000 to 400,000 excess deaths.
Mr Hunt said: “We did exhaustive pandemic preparations; we were lauded by Johns Hopkins University as being the second best prepared country in the world.
“But we were sadly also part of a groupthink that said that the primary way that you respond to a pandemic is the flu pandemic playbook (with a focus on areas like vaccination and boosting hospital capacity), rather than the methods that you would use for Sars and Mers (surveillance and containment, community testing, contact tracing and isolation, and stockpiling personal protective equipment, and ventilators).
“That was not unique to the UK. That was shared in the US and across Europe.
“But it’s why there is this stark difference in the effectiveness of our responses compared with countries in East Asia.
“That meant that we didn’t have test and trace capability at the outset, but also that we spent much too long deciding to do it.”
Mr Hunt said the decision to centralise testing in May helped create a structure quickly but “one of the big lessons of the future is to have localised contact tracing capability”.
On the issue of whether there are enough staff in the NHS, Mr Hunt called for a long-term plan for recruiting and training doctors, nurses and other staff but suggested work could have been done earlier in his tenure.
“I was very proud to push through very large increases (in recruitment) in 2016,” Mr Hunt said.
“But the truth is that not a single doctor has yet entered the workforce as a result of those changes.”
He added: “We’re in the rather ridiculous situation that three years after the NHS 10-year plan was published, we still don’t have the 10-year workforce plan.
“This has been the most challenging year for the NHS in its history.
“We should be asking ourselves, ‘What do we need to do now to turn this into a ‘1948 moment’ (when the NHS was founded) and give the workforce the confidence that there is a long-term strategic plan in place that will ultimately deal with the rota gaps, the pressures, and the shortages?’.”
Mr Hunt said the Office for National Statistics and NHS England should work together to publish every year what the future workforce requirements for the NHS are going to be.
The Tory MP also said the “biggest mistakes” in the social care sector made during this pandemic were “around the discharging of patients who were Covid positive into care homes.”
He added: “We have a lot to learn from countries like Germany that said that care homes were not allowed to take Covid positive patients unless
they were able to quarantine them for two weeks, and they were very strict about that.
“That may be the single reason why their death rate has been so much lower.”
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “I agree with the former health secretary that the country needs a long-term plan to deal with the chronic shortage of nursing staff. Successive secretaries of state have ducked this issue but the pandemic means the fragility of the nursing workforce is now an inescapable reality.”