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Revealed: How Norfolk prepared for a flu pandemic last year

PUBLISHED: 09:15 28 April 2020 | UPDATED: 09:16 28 April 2020

The army and NHS are working together to fight coronavirus. Picture: Cpl Danny Houghton

The army and NHS are working together to fight coronavirus. Picture: Cpl Danny Houghton

UK MOD © Crown copyright 2020 This image may be used for current news purposes only. It may not be used, reproduced or transmitted for any other purpose.

“You have just seen a news clip reporting that pandemic flu has reached the UK.

A new distribution centre has been created in Norwich for food and PPE. Pic: Norfolk County Council.A new distribution centre has been created in Norwich for food and PPE. Pic: Norfolk County Council.

“The Evening News is reporting high levels of sickness throughout the county. Several members of your team are coughing and wheezing and complaining of feeling ill.”

This, now chillingly familiar scenario, is not a report about the outbreak of coronavirus.

It was, in fact, played out last year as part of an exercise to test Norfolk’s response to a deadly pandemic.

By week three of this imaginary flu, schools had shut and 50pc of staff were off either ill or looking after their children. By week 10 staff were returning to work and the pandemic had eased.

The leaders of the emergency services have been planning Norfolk's response to coronavirus through the Resilience Forum. Photo: Norfolk County CouncilThe leaders of the emergency services have been planning Norfolk's response to coronavirus through the Resilience Forum. Photo: Norfolk County Council

Made up of council, health and emergency service leaders, the Norfolk Resilience Forum (NRF), which published the scenarios, has long planned for a pandemic, rating it, along with flooding, snow and power cuts, as the highest risk to the county.

It has carried out two exercises since 2015 to look at how Norfolk would respond to a pandemic.

But no-one could have guessed that six months after its last exercise, a virus would hit on a much bigger scale.

Some of the biggest issues sparked by the coronavirus crisis - the scale of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed for frontline staff, the need for a lockdown and the demand for mass testing to get out of that lockdown - were not predicted by anyone locally or nationally.

This March the NRF was meant to be updating its pandemic risk assessments and reviewing its emergency response.

Instead it found itself responding for real. It swung into action on February 5 and has been meeting ever since.

Chairman of the NRF’s strategic co-ordinating group, Tom McCabe, said: “Thankfully to date, the planning, preparation, early activation and appropriate resourcing of our collective response has helped mitigate some of the worst effects of the virus on Norfolk but we are ever mindful of keeping this effort going for as long as is required.”

The NRF’s last risk assessments for a pandemic, dating to 2017, correctly predicted the biggest impacts on the public would be getting access to healthcare and food, as well as the effect on people’s mental health.

A new distribution centre has been created in Norwich for food and PPE. Pic: Norfolk County Council.A new distribution centre has been created in Norwich for food and PPE. Pic: Norfolk County Council.

August 2019 was when the NRF last tested the county’s response to a pandemic in a “tabletop” exercise with NHS England called Castlemaine.

It led to the updating of plans and found improvements were needed in communications with the public as well as between the vastly different organisations tasked with fighting the flu.

Four years earlier, in 2015, another pandemic exercise called Corvus was run across east England.

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Its findings included creating a flu pandemic plan for the whole region and reviewing how mortuaries would cope with the sudden body count.

Some of these recommendations have already come to pass, with the opening of a temporary mortuary at RAF Coltishall earlier this month.

It is also understood that one of the recommendations of Exercise Corvus was to get “clarification” on PPE distribution and to work out which organisation would be responsible for supplying it.

Testing for the flu virus was also included as part of the strategy for detecting and assessing the illness.

Tom McCabe, head of paid service at Norfolk County Council is leading the local response to the coronavirus crisis. 
Photo: ArchantTom McCabe, head of paid service at Norfolk County Council is leading the local response to the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Archant

A spokesman for the NRF said: “The exercise was designed to enable organisations to be prepared for dealing with an emergency; to encourage collaborative working across all agencies; to help employees feel positive, well supported and well-motivated in their roles whilst highlighting areas for development.”

But the scale of the havoc wrought by coronavirus was not foreseen.

It will be the job later of a national inquiry to look at the country’s response, including testing and why PPE has not reached all frontline staff to the extent needed.

•Who is in charge?

The four leaders of the Norfolk Resilience Forum (NRF) are the heads of local councils and the fire service.

The chairman is chief fire officer, Stuart Ruff, and the vice chairman is Stephen Evans, chief executive of Norwich City Council.

That position was held by the joint head of North Norfolk Council Nick Baker until the end of February.

During the coronavirus crisis the NRF’s strategy is led by Tom McCabe, head of paid service at Norfolk County Council.

Meanwhile, Trevor Holden, joint managing director of Broadland and South Norfolk councils is the chair of the Tactical Coordinating Group.

The NRF’s members include the leaders of all local councils, emergency services, NHS England, Norfolk and Waveney NHS, Public Health England, Cadent Gas, the Environment Agency. Highways England, prisons, the Local Enterprise Partnership, the military and the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government.

•You can find Norfolk’s latest Emergency Response Plan here


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