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KCC warned pandemic posed 'significant threat' to Kent and there was a shortage of PPE long before coronavirus

A pandemic had been identified as a "significant threat" to Kent long before coronavirus and health planners were warned of PPE shortages in October 2016, a scrutiny committee has been told.

Kent County Council's scrutiny committee met earlier today to discuss County Hall's response to tackling the public health crisis between March and June. Councillors were joined by KCC officers and the Kent Resilience Forum (KRF), a local multi-agency emergency planning group.

Vehicles queue to enter the coronavirus testing centre set up in one of the car parks at Ebbsfleet International. Picture: Chris Davey
Vehicles queue to enter the coronavirus testing centre set up in one of the car parks at Ebbsfleet International. Picture: Chris Davey

Officials described their efforts as "monumental" and said that four million items of personal protective equipment (PPE) had been dispatched to key workers while a regional Covid testing centre was set up at Ebbsfleet station in April.

Despite this, more than 1,400 people have died from coronavirus in Kent, including over 900 in hospitals and nearly 400 in care homes across the county.

Barbara Cooper, KCC's corporate director for environment, growth and transport, told the scrutiny committee: "Nobody predicted what we were going to face in March."

However, KCC's senior emergency planning officer Tony Harwood, who is compiling a paper on lessons learnt from the crisis, said: "We had identified a pandemic as a very significant threat in terms of its impact and likelihood."

In October 2016, KCC's adult social care department had "actively" participated in a secret Government pandemic flu simulation. The exercise shone a light on potential shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Health planners were told of a PPE shortage in October 2016
Health planners were told of a PPE shortage in October 2016

Earlier today, Mr Harwood, who is also a Maidstone borough councillor, told the scrutiny committee: "The engagement in exercise Cygnus was significant from KCC's adult social care and emergency planning teams.

"That exercise, which was led by Public Health England, was significantly focused on an influenza pandemic.

"The coronavirus pandemic that we were faced with was slightly different in its characteristics and that's why KCC created and published by April 1 a bespoke Covid-19 contingency plan."

KCC chiefs initially discussed the threat of coronavirus sweeping from China to the UK in a series of planning meetings from January 28 to February 7. Talks centred around key interventions at schools and the social care sector.

On March 6, KCC established a weekly Covid task group, chaired by the director of public health, Andrew Scott-Clark, after the pandemic entered the UK.

KRF and KCC officials identified a series of key issues, including sourcing adequate PPE supplies; shielding the elderly in their homes and protecting the care home sector.

Around four million items of PPE, including masks, gowns, goggles, were distributed in £7million bulk purchases by KCC to local hospitals and care homes. More than 107,000 items were donated by universities, businesses and County Hall staff.

Daily KCC meetings were held from March to early June. Regular situation reports were provided to the Government and Cobra amid the height of the crisis from March to May.

Several Kent county councillors have called for a more "proactive" approach in dealing with potential second waves amid a local lockdown in the city of Leicester.

KCC's main opposition leader, Cllr Rob Bird (Lib Dem), said: "Many councillors were very frustrated about the situation where we had no idea what was going on, what the challenges were and where things could be done better."

Work is underway to learn lessons from the initial response.

KRF's interim head, Mark Rolfe, said improvements would be made to communications and key resources made available, such as adequate PPE to key workers.

In the meeting, Mr Rolfe said: "We are now looking to make sure that everything we have in place in Kent can benefit from the lessons that they learn in Leicester."

An updated paper will be presented to KCC's scrutiny committee on Tuesday, July 23, from 11am.

To keep up-to-date with all the latest developments with your local hospitals and other health stories, click here.

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