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The UK Health protection Agency has announced that it will coordinate the Europe wide avian flu exercise, to be called 'Common Ground'. The date and scenario of the exercise have not been announced. I have misgivings about the whole process.
According to the HPA, "officials in command centres across Europe will react to imaginary scenarios, which will be fed to them via the EU's Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) and via EU-wide teleconferences.... There will be no "real world” mobilisation of emergency services and healthcare staff. It will be command centre and desk-based."
Apart from government and international agencies, it will also include "representatives of the vaccine and pharmaceutical industry ".
This sort of exercise is extremely common in government circles. It is largely about government's own internal connections: who talks to whom, and how? This is very much the sort of thing that 'Hurricane Pam' looked at: it modelled, fairly accurately, the disaster that Hurricane Katrina later caused in New Orleans. It raised questions about government responses, but, with hindsight, didn't answer them.
"The aim of Exercise Common Ground is to rehearse decision-making on issues..... and coordination of information. A particular focus will be to explore the ability of national and EU level authorities to oversee the Europe-wide response and share information quickly and effectively." The HPA does not make clear whether this information sharing is largely between officials, or whether a realistic attempt has been made to simulate media and public concern, which could quickly reach considerable proportions.
'Hurricane Pam' showed that, if things go wrong, the way exercises were used can receive intense media and political scrutiny. "Pam", it is clear with hindsight, was very early on the learning curve: people were developing processes, not testing them. I don't know where "Common Ground" stands, but it is interesting that the HPA press release makes no reference to previous European exercises. (It does say in a footnote that "The Department of Health has funded the HPA to develop and run a series of exercises to test the preparedness of the UK with regard to public health related issues." but it doesn't say how many exercises have yet been held!)
Look at the timing. Apparently "This exercise is one of two pan European exercises being held to look at health preparedness in the European Union. The first has the scenario of a series of major disease outbreaks across Europe and the second features pandemic flu." But the exercise appears to have been announced on 4 October, to be held 'next month' (ie, November). Two weeks later, on 19 October, HPA announced that they had been chosen to coordinate the exercise. They appear to have only six weeks in which to do so - and the avian flu exercise is the second of two! Coordinating officials across the EU is likely to take more time than this. (Of course it would be completely wrong to use expressions like 'panic', or 'PR gesture', so I won't.)
Holding the exercise apparently without media participation is missing the most critical aspect of all: the public response. Will we panic? Will we ignore the whole thing? If we panic, what will happen to essential supplies and services (etc) if, for instance, there are high levels of absenteeism? The public reaction is so unpredictable that I would personally have thought it merited a couple of simulations of its own. Government has to get its ducks in a row, but that's only a small part of a major incident. The public reaction is part of the incident, not a side-issue. (How different Hurricane Katrina would have been if all those people in New Orleans had just jumped in their cars and driven to their second homes as soon as officials told them to!)
Remember that the government is telling us repeatedly that an avian flu outbreak is not a matter of 'if' but of 'when': they have already done a lot to guarantee serious public over-reaction in the UK, without really offering us any guidance on how to escape the flu or what to do about it. All we know is that they don't have anough vaccine.
The HPA promises that a media briefing will be organised by the Commission shortly after the pandemic exercise. Watch this space, and remember what happened to the head of FEMA.