The coronavirus pandemic has had a dramatic effect on all leading health systems. But has the UK been one of the worst affected? Was the NHS properly prepared and were the right decisions taken at the right time by the Government and health keaders? Ministers have faced some of the gravest challenges any British Government has encountered in peacetime but many questions have been asked about response and strategy.
Hugh Pym, Health Editor for BBC News, has watched the drama unfold at first hand and has had regular access to the key decision makers. He has been at the centre of BBC news coverage of the COVID-19 crises including some moving and harrowing stories from patients and NHS staff. He will tell the inside story of the UK Government's response, from the first reports of cases in China through to the lockdown and beyond.
Through interviews with well placed sources, some unattributable, he will piece together how Whitehall and the scientific establishment were slow to realise the likely devastating impact of the virus. He will give a detailed account of UK pandemic planning including the secret simulation exercise in 2016 (Operation Cygnus) which factored in overwhelming pressure on the NHS.
The book will chart the first UK cases at the end of January and the slow-paced reaction by the Government in February. The author went to all the key briefings with the Chief Medical Adviser Chris Whitty and other officials involved such as Dr Jenny Harries and Professor Paul Cosford. He did the first broadcast interviews with Prof Whitty.
In March and as the first deaths were announced, the author went to key briefings and press conferences with leading players, including the Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance. Doctors began receiving emails from Italian frontline medics warning of a terrifying surge of patients with severe respiratory problems. But still there was no escalation of the Government's action plan. He witnessed the dramatic shift in policy which saw a move over one weekend from refusing to ban sports fixtures and other mass gatherings to the start of the lockdown. He will examine in detail the frightening new predictions from the Imperial College team which forced a change of strategy. A critical issue is whether the Government left it two weeks too late and whether tougher restrictions on airline travel should have been introduced.
As the death roll mounted, heart breaking stories from hospitals and bereaved families emerged. Hugh Pym carried out many interviews which illustrated the human side of the COVID-19 epidemic. He has many contacts among doctors and nurses who give extraordinary accounts of life on the frontline with coronavirus patients. The authorities' failure initially to increase testing capacity and order sufficient quantities of PPE ( protective equipment) will be examined in detail. The author has been a regular attender at the online Downing Street media conferences and witnessed the performance of different ministers and officials.
The main characters in the drama , their personalities and their discussions will be an important thread in the book. In depth interviews will be sought with Matt Hancock, Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance and their advisers as well as members of the Downing Street team and other departments. NHS leaders such as Sir Simon Stevens in England and Professor Jason Leitch in Scotland will also be on the list. The author knows some of the key scientists in the debate around the handling of the crisis, including Prof Anthony Costello and Prof Peter Openshaw. The international perspective will not be ignored with accounts of the handling of the COVID-19 in other European economies and comparisons with Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore.
The success stories in the UK, including the ability of the NHS to cope with the surge in patients numbers, will also be covered. The emergence of a "new normal" for the health service as more work is done remotely via videolink is an important issue for the future. Lessons learned and how the UK might to another pandemic threat will be evaluated.
Hugh Pym is Chief Economics Correspondent for BBC News. He has been amongst the leading broadcasters on the banking crisis and ensuing recession, from Northern Rock through the collapse of Lehmans to the unprecedented bailouts of Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds/HBOS and the continued aftermath across the British economy.
He took on the post of Economics Editor, covering Stephanie Flanders's maternity leave, during the dramatic events of 2008. He was part of the BBC News team, alongside Robert Peston, which won a Royal Television Society Award for coverage of the banking crisis....
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