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Scottish pandemic exercise revealed health services were not prepared for coronavirus

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PPE Concerns over the lack of PPE available to NHS staff have been revealed to go back several years

A simulation of a coronavirus outbreak in Scotland in 2018 revealed a ‘clear gap’ in readiness to deal with a pandemic. A Freedom of Information request from the BBC found that ‘Exercise Iris’ highlighted ‘unease’ among staff about the availability of personal protection equipment (PPE), and training in its use, and ‘the need for substantive progress on PPE use within Scotland’.

The exercise simulated an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV), a coronavirus like COVID-19, but with lower transmission rates and higher fatality. Its findings were shared the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), an expert committee that advises the UK government on pandemics.

Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of public health at Edinburgh University and a member of the Scottish Government COVID-19 Advisory Group, described it as a ‘lost opportunity’.

‘It seems that SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) members were unaware or at least didn't discuss this exercise in their thinking in January or February, which would have been crucial in making steps to actually prepare for an eventual outbreak,’ she said. ‘It's the whole purpose of these exercises, to learn from them.’

Earlier this week an NHS doctor launched a judicial review of the British Government’s refusal to reveal the findings of Operation Cygnus, a similar simulation held in 2016 designed to test the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic.

Dr Moosa Qureshi has argued that the refusal to disclose the full report is unlawful, and shows ‘disrespect for the NHS professionals who have had to lay their lives on the line blindly, deprived of data which they need to fight Covid-19 effectively.

‘It damages our national response to this public health emergency if pandemic data is hidden from the nurses and doctors who are managing this crisis on the ground.‘

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