A Cygn of the Times: Legal action to uncover “secret results” from UK government’s Exercise Cygnus

May 21, 2020


3 min read

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What’s going on here?

In 2016, a three-day simulation of an influenza pandemic called “Exercise Cygnus” was conducted. However, with the UK government refusing to publish the full findings of this exercise, Dr Moosa Qureshi is pursuing legal action.

What does this mean?

In April, the publication of this report was requested by The Guardian. Despite arguing on the basis of freedom of information, access was rejected on the grounds that it would “prohibitively impact the ability of ministers to meet with officials and external stakeholders to discuss ongoing policy development” for COVID-19.

Arguing that not revealing these results is simply not good enough, Dr Qureshi has begun crowdfunding to secure legal action against the government. Represented by Leigh Day, solicitor Tessa Gregory summarised that the foundation of this case is based upon the firm belief “that the NHS workforce and the wider public has a right to know what Exercise Cygnus made clear to the Department of Health and Social Care.” In particular,  the information regarding “what needed to be done to keep NHS staff and the public safe in a pandemic” and whether such recommendations were effectively followed in the 4 year period since the simulation. 

Moreover, with a version of this “Official – Sensitive” report having been unexpectedly published by the Guardian on 7 May 2020 (find that report here), this raises the question of what the next steps are for Dr Qureshi in bringing legal action and addressing the “many questions (which) remain unanswered”.

What’s the big picture effect?

Exercise Cygnus presented a significant learning opportunity in the UK’s response to pandemics, in the identification of problematic areas and knowledge of where further investment was required. With the 2017 report’s identification that “the UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability,…(was) not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands” of the theoretical influenza, this places doubt on just how far such observations were considered when responding to the real-world threats of COVID-19.

Despite Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s assertions that the UK’s responsiveness to COVID-19 has been “amongst the most extensive in the world,” the search for full disclosure from the government continues. In assertion of the fact that “there is no persuasive argument for secrecy when managing a healthcare crisis,” Dr Qureshi’s pursuit of legal action could therefore provide much-needed clarity, transparency and accountability from the UK government’s approach towards COVID-19. Furthermore, with £42,370 of the £50,000 pledge having been reached on “crowdjustice”, this further signifies public interest as to whether the government is hiding key information in their response to COVID-19.

In the big picture, Dr Qureski’s case against the UK government bears much potential. Both in holding “the government accountable for their pandemic preparations and management” and ultimately testing “the veracity of the statements being made by the government” on public health matters impacting our society and which present significant threat to life. 

In summary, as we await further action either by way of the Freedom of Information Act or judicial review, the progression of this case presents significant points of public interest in ascertaining the level of accountability attached to the UK government’s response to COVID-19.

Report written by Karolina Smolicz

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