The government did not plan for a national lockdown in any way, the former head of emergency planning for the UK has admitted to the Covid Inquiry.
Katharine Hammond, who was director of the Cabinet Office’s civil contingencies secretariat from 2016 to 2020, said while there had been some planning for limited school closures in the event of a viral pandemic, ministers and officials did not prepare at all for a full lockdown, with classrooms closed for months and the economy effectively put into shutdown.
Her evidence to Baroness Hallett’s inquiry laid bare the full scale of the lack of planning by the UK government in the run up to the 2020 Covid pandemic.
Families of those bereaved by Covid described her evidence as “horrific”.
Ms Hammond insisted the government was not “blindsided” by the virus outbreak but acknowledged that Operation Yellowhammer, the Cabinet Office’s planning for a no-deal Brexit, “was a really major consumer of resources in my time” in the run-up to 2020.
The inquiry was also told that the government’s National Security Council’s 2019 assessment of a non-flu emerging infectious disease forecast only 2,000 UK deaths – a fraction of the more than 220,000 that have been linked to Covid up to last month.
It also emerged that the National Security Council’s sub-committee on Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingencies, which focused on pandemics as well as other major risks, was abolished in July 2019, less than six months before the virus emerged.
Resources for that committee were diverted to Brexit planning, the inquiry heard.
Hugo Keith KC, the lead counsel for the inquiry, asked Ms Hammond if there had been any consideration of full national lockdowns by the UK government in the years before Covid emerged. She replied: “No, there wasn’t.”
Mr Keith said: “Was there any consideration, foresight or planning for total economic collapse, furlough schemes, for national support financially and for the closing of businesses and in effect the economy?”
Ms Hammond replied: “As all of those flow from the planning for a lockdown, so the answer follows no.”
Mr Keith told Ms Hammond that her team’s forecast of a “reasonable worst case scenario” for a pandemic was “a very long way” from what actually transpired. This included a “fairly rapid, accepted route to a vaccine for flu” which was not the case for coronavirus, while with Covid there was a substantial amount of asymptomatic transmission which is not the case for flu.
Asked by Mr Keith whether there was a sufficient stockpile of PPE, which would be needed for a long period and in such large quantities, Ms Hammond said: “No, I don’t think so.”
An internal government report after Exercise Cygnus, which the government carried out in 2016 to plan for a flu pandemic, warned that the country was not prepared for a pandemic.
“Policies and capability were not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic, and that proved to be correct,” Mr Keith said. Ms Hammond replied: “Yes.”
She said that work on preparing for a pandemic “had not been completed by the time Covid arrived” adding: “Elements of it were paused in order to refocus effort onto [the no-deal Brexit planning] Operation Yellowhammer.”
Rivka Gottlieb, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “The news that the Cabinet Office hadn’t done any preparations for lockdowns prior to the pandemic is absolutely horrific for families like mine.
“The risk of a pandemic was common knowledge but it’s clear that the Government was caught completely unprepared.
“Katherine Hammond’s comments today suggested that instead of focusing on lockdowns they were planning how they would dispose of bodies. The thought that my Dad might still be with us today if this hadn’t been the case is incredibly painful to live with.”