Exercise simulating virus outbreak in Scotland warned of 'clear gap' in preparedness

Telegraph reporters
An exercise simulating an outbreak of coronavirus in Scotland noted a "clear gap" in the country's preparedness

An exercise simulating an outbreak of coronavirus in Scotland noted a "clear gap" in the country's preparedness, according to a report.

The exercise held in March 2018 simulated an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (Mers-CoV) to assess NHS Scotland's readiness to respond to a suspected outbreak.

The Scottish Government said it published the report this week "given understandable interest in activity around preparedness or planning for infectious disease outbreaks".

Mers, first identified in the Middle East in 2012, is a rare but severe respiratory illness which can start with a fever and cough and can develop into pneumonia and breathing difficulties.

The table-top exercise, known as Exercise Iris, was delivered by the Scottish Government and involved NHS Scotland boards, NHS 24, Health Protection Scotland and the Scottish Ambulance Service.

Held at a hotel in Stirling, the exercise simulated three different scenarios in an outbreak.

CargoLogicAir flight CLU 5694 lands at Prestwick Airport on Monday this week with a consignment of NHS medical supplies and PPE from China - PA

The report said it was recognised the availability and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) would be a "key consideration in the early stages of the outbreak".

It said the profile of PPE within the day's discussion "underlined the need for substantive progress on PPE use within Scotland".

The report concluded: "Amongst frontline staff there is unease at the lack of clarity on PPE availability, training and testing.

"This is a clear gap in Scotland's preparedness for MERS-CoV and other outbreaks and needs to be addressed as soon as possible."

One of the scenarios featured "escalating resource requirements for contact tracing and follow up".

It said: "Board plans will need to have considered this in detail and - as in the previous discussion - national coordination may be required to organise surge capacity and mutual aid."

The report also said: "In the event of a large scale crisis, Boards will appreciate strong, national coordination and clear guidance.

"Scottish Government and Health Protection Scotland should endeavour to ensure that relevant guidance is up to date and communicated effectively and that processes are in place for standing up and accessing national coordination structures and that these processes are widely agreed and understood."

Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Justice Secretary - Getty Images Europe

In an interview on BBC Radio Scotland, Humza Yousaf, the Justice Secretary, was asked whether he rejected the conclusion of the report that Scotland was not prepared. There were dire shortages of PPE in the first weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak.

He replied: "No, I'm not. I'm saying the exercise, said 'well, here are some gaps' and of course we'll be looking to address those gaps.

"We have had and continue to have good stockpiles of PPE for example. That was one area that was addressed as potentially being one of the gaps.

"There was certain items of course, because of a global pandemic, that everybody is trying to get at exactly the same time."

Asked why Scotland was not prepared for the outbreak despite the simulation, he said: "I reject that suggestion that we weren't prepared.

"First of all, the fact that we're doing these desktop exercises in itself shows that of course we're looking to be prepared right across, not just government, but across the public sector if possible.

"And second of all, we had good stockpiles of PPE. Not only do we have and continue to have good volumes of PPE, we're now manufacturing that PPE here in Scotland.

"But if you're asking me could we have had a crystal ball, regardless of any desktop exercise to understand every single complication, in relation to a pandemic of this scale, then I'm afraid it doesn't matter how good your desktop exercise is, it cannot quite prepare you for every single eventuality that a virus of this nature, and pandemic of this nature, brings."