Exercise Cygnus: NHS doctor's legal bid to force Government to release papers on pandemic preparedness

Bill Gardner
Dr Moosa Qureshi filed a claim against Health Secretary Matt Hancock in the High Court on Monday - Julian Simmonds
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An NHS doctor has launched a judicial review of the Government's refusal to reveal the full findings of a secret simulation designed to test the UK's preparedness for a pandemic.

Dr Moosa Qureshi filed a claim against Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, in the High Court on Monday.

Dr Qureshi and his legal team are seeking to force the Government to release the full findings of Exercise Cygnus, a cross-governmental dry run carried out in late 2016.

The Department of Health has repeatedly refused to publish Cygnus, citing concerns that doing so could jeopardise the ability of civil servants to speak freely behind the scenes.

However, a document setting out the broad conclusions of Cygnus was leaked to newspapers last month. It revealed that the Government had been forewarned of the likely impact of a new disease on care homes.

Whitehall insiders have also disclosed that Cygnus warned that the NHS might be overwhelmed in the event of a pandemic amid shortages of critical care beds, mortuary places and personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health workers.

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Represented by the legal firm Leigh Day, Dr Qureshi and co-claimant Tommy Greene, a freelance journalist, are seeking "all the findings, lessons or recommendations arising out of Exercise Cygnus, including reports by participants in the exercise".

They claim the refusal to publish the Cygnus report is unlawful under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, under Section Six of the Human Rights Act 1998, a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and unreasonable at common law.

Under the Civil Contingencies Act, the Government has a duty to arrange for the publication of assessments made and plans maintained to enable action to be taken in connection with an emergency. Section Six of the Human Rights Act requires it to comply with Article 10 of the ECHR, which gives the public the right to receive information.

The Government has insisted that any request for the publication of the report should be made through the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). However, it has already refused such a request from Dr Qureshi, saying the costs would exceed the limit allowed by the FOIA.

Exercise Cygnus, a three-day dry run for a pandemic, tested how NHS hospitals and other services would cope in the event of a major flu outbreak with a similar mortality rate to Covid-19. The report on its findings was deemed too sensitive to be made public by Whitehall officials.

Dr Qureshi and Mr Greene are requesting that the High Court declares that the Secretary of State's decision to refuse to disclose the report in full is unlawful. They are crowdfunding their case.

Dr Qureshi said: "The Health Secretary's refusal to allow us to learn from a national pandemic exercise – when we are in the midst of a viral pandemic which continues to claim hundreds of lives daily – shows his callous disregard for human life.

"It also shows his 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. 

"We have repeatedly engaged with the Government to make the case for transparency, but unfortunately the Health Secretary has refused to allow us to learn from Cygnus without rhyme or reason. Regretfully, I have therefore been forced to instruct my solicitors to issue legal proceedings against the Government in the national interest."

Tessa Gregory, a solicitor at law firm Leigh Day said: "My clients are challenging the Health Secretary's refusal to publish a series of reports relating to Exercise Cygnus.

"They consider that there is an extremely powerful case for publication, in circumstances where the UK Government has repeatedly relied upon Exercise Cygnus to demonstrate that it was prepared for the current pandemic, and where one of the reports has already been leaked.

"Publication is required in order to allow the scientific community, media and public to evaluate and critique the Government's ongoing response. This is particularly critical given the easing of lockdown and the possibility of further pandemic waves.

"It is difficult to understand why, during this public health emergency, the Government – who have committed themselves to transparency – are spending time and resources defending this claim rather than simply providing the information requested."