The government was reportedly warned three years ago that the NHS would be quickly overwhelmed in the event of a severe disease outbreak.
A major exercise testing the UK’s ability to deal with a pandemic – codenamed Cygnus – exposed “terrifying” failings, the Sunday Telegraph reports.
Ministers were told that hospitals would rapidly run out of intensive care beds, mortuaries would be overwhelmed and doctors would be forced to deny frail patients critical care.
A classified report on Cygnus’s findings – which has never been made public – highlighted problems delivering protective equipment such as masks and gowns to health workers, an issue which has been frequently raised by medics battling Covid-19.
It suggested that health bosses would have no choice but to “switch off” large parts of the NHS.
Officials are even said to have discussed deploying midwives to care for the critically ill, instead of delivering babies.
Cygnus – a three-day test exercise – was carried out in October 2016 to see how hospitals and other services would manage if struck by a major flu outbreak with similar death rate to coronavirus.
More than a thousand organisations were involved, ranging from NHS trusts to the military and British Medical Association.
Among the most worrying conclusions was that a pandemic could result in doctors having to adopt a “battlefield” mentality and prioritise patients for treatment depending on survival chances.
But despite the shocking findings, it did not lead to the government changing its plans for future pandemics, which were last updated in 2014.
Officials say Cygnus’s results have been largely kept quiet due to “biosecurity” concerns and not wanting to alarm the public.
However, documents seen by the Sunday Telegraph reveal that it did lead to guidelines being sent to NHS trusts on how to prepare for a pandemic.
The exercise also led to ministers drawing up draft emergency legislation, which formed the basis of the Coronavirus Bill approved by the House of Commons last week, giving ministers sweeping powers to tackle the crisis.
Sources close to a team at Imperial College London who were involved in Cygnus say they were “surprised” it had not led to better planning for future pandemics.
“It’s basically a lack of attention to what would be needed to prevent a disease like this from overwhelming the system,” they said.
“These exercises are supposed to prepare government for something like this – but it appears they were aware of the problem but didn’t do much about it.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “As the public would expect, we regularly test our pandemic plans and the learnings from previous exercises have helped allow us to rapidly respond to COVID-19.”