Covid-19 Inquiry: Pandemic preparation was sidelined for no-deal Brexit planning

The Inquiry also heard how preparation for a no-deal exit from the European Union had to sometimes take priority over planning for a flu pandemic. Credit: PA

The government's preparation for a no-deal Brexit sometimes "took precedent" over planning for a pandemic, the UK Covid-19 public Inquiry has heard.

Ministers were aware in 2016 that "even a moderate pandemic would overrun" the "fragmented" pandemic preparedness system within the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), newly disclosed documents revealed on Monday.

But the senior civil servant who took charge of emergency preparedness at the DHSC in 2018 told the inquiry that despite the previous warnings, preparation for a no-deal exit from the European Union had to sometimes take priority over planning for a flu pandemic.

Emma Reed said she was asked by the Cabinet Office to look at which areas of work she could "prioritise or deprioritise in order to prepare".

Ms Reed highlighted the adult social care sector, which she said faced a "real and credible threat" from a no-deal Brexit. She said it needed to prepare for that over a pandemic.

The senior civil servant also told the inquiry the challenges posed to the sector by an abrupt EU exit included staffing levels, medicine supply and financial stability.

Hugo Keith KC, counsel to inquiry, challenged Ms Reed and asked: "In terms of the balance between the possible outcomes of an unprepared no-deal EU exit and the appalling loss of life attendant upon a pandemic for which no preparedness had been carried out, why did no-ne say we cannot afford to stop the pandemic preparedness?"

The adult social care sector had done some preparation work for a pandemic, Ms Reed insisted, and in considering where to allocate resources she considered "where is the real and considerable threat" against the "risk of a threat".

Meanwhile, internal DHSC documents relating to a November 2019 pandemic preparedness meeting showed "areas of work not prioritised". This included boosting the adult social care sector during a future pandemic and reviewing the 2011 pandemic flu strategy to ensure it was "accurate and up to date".

Also giving evidence to the inquiry on Monday was Dame Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency who was deputy chief medical officer for England during the pandemic.

In that role Ms Harries appeared at the daily news conferences in Downing Street and took questions from the press on the status of coronavirus in the UK.

The former health secretary Matt Hancock will also give evidence this week, as will Scotland's former first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

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