The UK drew up a blueprint to respond to a COVID-19-type outbreak in 2005 – but the contingency plan was apparently “lost” and never considered when the coronavirus surged across the world, according to a new report.
The Independent reported on Wednesday that the document, drawn up in response to the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), had listed several key recommendations to safeguard the British pubic should another deadly outbreak seep the planet.
Those recommendations included building up infrastructure for virus testing, stockpiling Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), implementing travel restrictions, isolating, and testing contacts with infections, and limiting “super-spreader” events.
One former government adviser said that the blueprint – based on a theory of a coronavirus outbreak originating in China and spreading across the globe – could have saved “tens of thousands of lives” if it had been used to guide the response to COVID-19.
Instead, the draft contingency plan appears to have gone “missing” shortly after it was submitted, Whitehall sources told The Independent.
One senior medical adviser who served in Downing Street throughout the last decade said they were “totally surprised” to learn of the blueprint, despite having worked in emergency health planning and pandemic preparedness.
Another involved in the early response to COVID-19 said ministers had been “starting from scratch” in February and March 2020, as the outbreak in the UK grew, adding: “There was no awareness of this document.”
SARS, COVID-19 and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), are all types of coronaviruses and share many similarities in terms of genetic make-up.
They all differ in how they spread, the disease they cause in infected people and the severity in which people get sick.
The 2005 blueprint, put together by the UK’s Department of Health, had made eerily similar predictions of what a SARS-like future virus – and potential outbreak – could mean.
They warned of a spread via “finer aerosols of infectious respiratory secretions, which stay in the air longer than droplets,” meaning it can be passed from one person to another through the nose, mouth or even eyes. COVID-19 transmits in the same manner.
Journalists had uncovered details of the blueprint through a request under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act.
The report also revealed that the authors had warned of the risk of “super-spreading events” and reiterates the need for good ventilation, particularly in a healthcare setting, in order to “direct airflow … and remove contaminated air.”
Draft document from June 2005
The document was dated as June 23, 2005 with the word “draft” in capitals across each of its 48 pages.
It began by outlining the 2003 response to SARS, of which there were four confirmed cases in the UK and 8,000 around the world. The outbreak was, it says, a “wake-up call to the global public health community to re-evaluate their preparedness” for bringing in measures to combat an emerging infectious disease.
“Even if SARS does not re-emerge,” the introduction says, “many of the issues addressed are relevant to generic preparedness for other infectious disease outbreaks and emergencies, including other newly emerging threats.”
In the “lessons learnt” section, the document stresses the need for “clear and transparent communications”, surge capacity in hospitals and testing, rapid detection of illness and isolation of cases, and increased infection control measures – such as high-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) – in healthcare settings. In contrast, Britain’s early response to COVID-19 was defined by PPE shortages, a lack of testing facilities and an early decision to abandon attempts to isolate contacts of confirmed cases.
When COVID-19 spread across the world after being first discovered in China, many countries followed different strategies to tackle the outbreak.
The UK loosely followed a strategy devised for tackling pandemic influenza, or seasonal flu.
Under this strategy, mass gatherings were permitted, international arrivals from numerous affected countries weren’t placed into quarantine, and the virus was largely given free rein to pass through the population until the imposition of lockdown.
But it is the SARS contingency plan that should have been used instead of the flu textbook at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, says Sir David King, chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007, who was involved in developing the document.
“It was overlooked,” he said. “I believe tens of thousands of lives would have been saved. I think the economy would have been in a much better place too.”
Those who worked on the plan in the mid-2000s believe it was passed on to ministers in the then-Labor government but never properly formalized. An earlier interim plan was published in 2003, and it is understood the 2005 document was intended to be a resource for other government departments, health protection agencies and local authorities. It was then listed on the National Risk Register of emergency plans until 2015.
Pat Troop, who also helped develop the plan while chief executive of the now-defunct Health Protection Agency (HPA), said it “would have gone to ministers and probably been discussed in Cobra”. After that, she said, “I don’t know where it went.”
As of Thursday, more than 200 million people around the world have contracted COVID-19, as the more infectious Delta variant threatens areas with low vaccination rates and has burdened global healthcare systems around the world.
The pandemic has left close to 4.4 million people dead.