Brexit delays Welsh pandemic plans, official says – BBC News

  • By David Deans
  • BBC Wales political journalist


Brexit is said to have affected planning

Preparations for a no-deal Brexit are holding up work to plan for a future flu pandemic, Wales’ most senior medical advisor has said.

Sir Frank Atherton said work on the Covid investigation “stalled” in the years before the country was hit by Covid.

The chief medical officer said resources had been transferred.

The Welsh government is among the agencies planning Britain to leave the EU without a deal. In the end, Brexit happened by agreement.

Sir Frank also told the London hearing that there was no debate in government about how to handle a non-flu pandemic, saying the matter was “prematurely dismissed”.

A key guidance document on future pandemics has not been updated since 2011, the investigation was told, and emails from 2019 indicate concerns that the country is not prepared for a high consequence infectious disease.

After the hearing, Plaid leader Cymru Rhun ap Iorwerth said it was clear “pandemic planning in Wales is grossly inadequate”.

Anne-Louise Marsh-Rees, from the group Covid-19 Families Bereaved for Cymru Justice, said after the hearing that the lack of preparation “surpasses our worst fears”.

“Our loved ones don’t stand a chance,” he said.

Russell George of the Welsh Conservatives said he was concerned to hear of the “lack of planning and preparedness and the inability of the Welsh Government to think through the possibility of a negative outcome”.

First Minister Mark Drakeford and Health Secretary Vaughan Geting will present evidence of the investigation on Tuesday.


Sir Frank Atherton is the first Welsh official to speak on the Covid investigation

Tuesday’s session is part of an inquiry module looking at how prepared Britain is for the pandemic.

Emails from July 2018 revealed officials had concerns about resources, and the lack of progress on reviewing pandemic guidelines posed a risk to the Welsh government.

The inquiry also heard that the Welsh government’s Welsh flu pandemic preparedness group met for the last time in September 2018 and did not sit down again.

At one point, a note went to health minister Vaughan Geting that progress had not been as quick “as expected”.

Sir Frank agreed when the inquiry’s lead adviser, Hugo Keith, told him that no resources had been allocated for pandemic planning, and no further work was being carried out.

“The reason for that, for progress to then stall, is because resources are being transferred to other issues,” said Sir Frank, referring to preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

He added: “All work has come to a halt.”

‘We should pay more attention to what if’

A meeting held in September 2017 of the Wales Pandemic Flu Preparedness Group identified a number of “strategic documents” that needed amending in light of findings following the flu preparedness exercise, Exercise Cygnus.

Sir Frank said he didn’t think either of them were eventually renewed, suggesting it was “the British process” that would get them updated. He added that in terms of planning, the strategy was based on documents from 2011 and the planning was “contingent” on the British group updating the strategy. “The master document is visible, and has always been, as the 2011 strategy and others seem to depend on,” he said. “But there is no strategy document update, everything depends on the 2011 strategy update.”

Much of the discussion centered on preparing for a pandemic caused by the flu.

But Covid is caused by a coronavirus, which behaves differently. Sir Frank said in the investigation there was no debate about how to deal with a pandemic that was not caused by influenza.

“With hindsight, we can and should pay more attention to the ‘what if’ questions – the ‘what if the virus was very different,'” he said.

“At the time, I think it’s fair to say those steps were considered and prematurely dropped.”

The congregation also heard emails from Public Health Wales from 2019 that the country was “not adequately prepared” to deal with high consequence infectious diseases.

The email refers to two people from west Wales who are low-risk contacts of monkeypox cases.

It said there was “some urgent work to be done to provide the necessary assurance that NHS Wales can effectively respond to a case or cases of high consequence infectious disease anywhere in the country”.

Sir Frank acknowledged that “highly specialized facilities are needed at a level that we don’t have in Wales” and that he has been working to strengthen the system.

He told the inquiry that his office was under-resourced when Covid started.

The chief medical officer said he had been “drowned in a sea of ​​information” early in the pandemic, and was “unable to even manage email”.

‘They didn’t complete the task’

Dr Andrew Goodall, permanent secretary of the Welsh government, also testified on Tuesday.

He had been chief executive of NHS Welsh when the Covid outbreak started.

The inquiry heard more than one assignment and completed the group it had formed to observe the pandemic.

Dr Andrew Goodall told the Covid investigation not all of the recommendations they made were implemented.

“They were given a task but they didn’t complete it?” asked Baroness Hallet, who was leading the investigation.

“Yes they did not complete the task,” he replied.

Analysis by Hywel Griffith

Wales Correspondent, BBC News

For a small country, it’s clear Wales has no shortage of agencies with the job of preparing for potential health emergencies ahead of a pandemic.

In the words of legal advisors there are “most” of them at local, regional and national levels.

But Wales was still not ready for something like the spread of Covid-19.

In testimony, former NHS Welsh chief Dr Goodall accepted there was “duplication” and “too much organization”.

It is a problem flagged in a report dating back to 2012 with warnings about “confusion” and “fragmentation”, making Wales less resilient.

The emerging picture from the evidence so far is that officials in Wales recognized this failure and the need for improvement before the pandemic, but progress has been slow and their attention elsewhere.

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