Lack of clarity from Department of Health on Northern Ireland pandemic simulation

DoH sign at Stormont.

DoH sign at Stormont.

THE Department of Health (DoH) has refused to confirm whether Northern Ireland tested its response arrangements for a pandemic in the years preceding the COVID-19 outbreak.

In 2016, the UK Government ran a scenario called Exercise Cygnus, which simulated an influenza pandemic. The devolved administrations had their own response plans which 'were not examined' during the exercise.

However, the 2017 Exercise Cygnus Report confirms that the Welsh Government tested its response arrangements following the British Government’s simulation which applied in England.

There is no reference to the Northern Ireland or Scotland administrations testing their arrangements.

The Detail approached the DoH, but the department failed to say whether Northern Ireland subsequently ran its own simulation of a pandemic response.

A DoH spokesperson cited the High Court challenge being taken over the British Government's refusal to publish the Exercise Cygnus Report as limiting what the department can say on the subject.

However, the Guardian has the report published in full on its website, with redactions to shield only the names and email addresses of government officials.

The DoH spokesperson added that lessons learnt from Exercise Cygnus “apply across responses to a range of health and social care emergencies where they affect, or have the potential to affect, the population of Northern Ireland”.

Reference was also made to the DoH engaging health and social care providers in training and exercises “on a regular basis”.

However, no answer was provided to our question as to whether the Northern Ireland DoH ran a simulated pandemic response test here following Exercise Cygnus.

The Exercise Cygnus Report contained four ‘key learnings’ and 22 ‘lessons identified’ to prepare the UK for a pandemic.

Two of the report’s ‘lessons identified’ related to the social care sector, one of which called for the development of a methodology for assessing social care capacity and surge capacity during a pandemic.

The other stated that the possibility of expanding social care real-estate and staffing capacity, in the event of a worst-case scenario pandemic, should be examined.

There has been debate between politicians and representatives of the social care sector about the degree to which these recommendations were implemented by the British Government following the report.

However, the DoH spokesperson said the High Court case involving the British Government has meant the department is not "in any position to comment on any recommendations which may be within the report”.

According to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency's (NISRA’s) latest weekly figures, 404 of the 779 deaths involving COVID-19 in Northern Ireland, up until June 5, 2020, were residents in care homes, which come under the social care sector.

Some care home residents have died in hospital, however, 334 of these NISRA-recorded deaths physically occurred in care homes.

Previously, The Detail published an article which highlighted concerns over the accuracy of COVID-19 care home death figures.

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