It turns out that the first catastrophic error that Johnson made when it came to dealing with the pandemic actually took place within days of his moving in to Number 10, in July 2019. It’s a story worth remembering – of a government not even intending to be prepared.
The National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) was a 600-page confidential report produced for the eyes of Number Ten during 2019. It did, however, get leaked to the Guardian newspaper.
The Government’s chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, one of the key figures steering the Covid-19 response, signed off the briefing and impressed the need for ‘robust’ plans to deal with a pandemic.
The assessment said a relatively mild outbreak of ‘moderate virulence’ could lead to 65,600 deaths and could cost the UK £2.35trillion.
Theresa May was prime minister when the report was written, but it was mothballed on the advice of Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill so ministers and officials could focus on Brexit.
The Committee of cabinet ministers who were the intended audience, the Threats, Hazards, Resilience & Contingency Committee (THRCC), was scrapped by Johnson in July 2019, six months before the coronavirus arrived. The report was never discussed before the THRCC was shut down.
The THRCC had also been tasked with following through the findings of Exercise Cygnus, a simulation of a viral pandemic that was carried out in 2016. The Cygnus report concluded:
“The UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic that will have a nationwide impact across all sectors.”
The Cygnus report found that nobody in the centre had oversight over everyone else. There were also particular concerns about the impact of a pandemic on the social care sector.
Though discussed at an NHS board meeting and mentioned in a speech by the former chief medical officer, the report on Cygnus has never been published.
In a response to a freedom of information request, the Department of Health claimed that the report needed to be kept secret so as to inform policy development.
However, the current health secretary, Matt Hancock, said that he had been told that all of its recommendations had already been implemented, suggesting its role in informing policy was complete.
It’s hard to see how that would have been possible.
So Johnson’s first major error, an act of careless expedience or Brexit tunnel-vision, happened within days of his coming into office as he ripped out the opportunity for central oversight at the start of any pandemic.
A former Cabinet minister who was a member of THRCC until it was axed said it could have ensured the Government reacted more quickly to coronavirus, adding: ‘Once the pandemic took hold in Italy… alarm bells would have been ringing.
It wasn’t simply that Johnson was unprepared. He had removed the capacity to be prepared.
It was the act of a man with a history of being a chancer. By way of an analogy to someone into airsports, it’s a bit like skydiving without a reserve parachute.
Only he had the whole country clipped onto his harness as a passenger.
The sources for this thread are from David Pegg (Guardian, 7 May 2020) and Simon Walters (Daily Mail,12 June 2020). The journalistic credit is theirs. I have drawn a Twitter readable thread. It is a bi-product of my blog ‘The Covid Chronicle‘