The NHS failed a major stress test three years ago to see if it could cope with a severe pandemic, but the results were never made public.
The test revealed to ministers, including then health secretary Jeremy Hunt, that the health service would have a shortage of protective equipment, critical care beds and morgue capacity in such an outbreak.
The Sunday Telegraph revealed today that the three-day operation, codenamed Exercise Cygnus, was undertaken in October 2016 and tested whether the NHS could handle a flu-like outbreak with a similar mortality rate to coronavirus.
The government’s planning for a potential pandemic never changed, despite the test revealing that the NHS was not prepared to handle a major outbreak such as Covid-19.
A senior official told the Telegraph that the information was not released because it could “terrify people”.
Another said “the NHS was stretched beyond breaking point” by the three-day test.
They added: “People might say we have blood on our hands, but the fact is that it’s always easier to manage the last outbreak than the one coming down the track. Hindsight is a beautiful thing.”
The revelation comes as hospitals, particularly in London, struggle to keep up with the pace of new coronavirus cases.
The UK’s death toll from Covid-19 has now surpassed 1,000, after the biggest daily increase in deaths occurred yesterday.
The government has asked manufacturers, such as Rolls Royce and Airbus, to start producing ventilators in its bid to source 30,0000 units of the vital equipment.
Currently, the health system has an estimated 8,000 ventilators, which has been deemed to be far below the amount needed.
The government commissioned 10,000 of them from vacuum manufacturer Dyson on Thursday.
East London’s Excel centre is also being turned into a 4,000-bed temporary hospital to deal with the surging number of coronavirus cases.
In response to the leak of Exercise Cygnus, a Department of Health spokesperson said: “The coronavirus outbreak calls for decisive action, at home and abroad, and the World Health Organisation recognises that the UK is one of the most prepared countries in the world for pandemic flu.
“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. We are committed to be as transparent as possible, and in publishing the SAGE evidence the public are aware of the science behind the government’s response.”