DEPUTY Prime Minister Oliver Dowden has claimed that no-deal Brexit planning made the UK “match fit” ahead of the pandemic, while an expert told the Covid inquiry that Westminster was “not operationally prepared”.

Oliver Dowden, who was minister for the Cabinet Office from July 2019 to February 2020 and had previously worked in the department, told the UK Covid-19 inquiry that planning for a no-deal Brexit put the country in a “strong position” to respond to other challenges.

However, the inquiry heard earlier from the UK Government’s former chief scientific adviser who said the UK was “not operationally prepared” for a pandemic.

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It comes after former Tory chancellor George Osborne told the inquiry that austerity cuts had better prepared the UK for the pandemic, and rejected claims that the policy depleted the NHS - despite the fact that medics and unions repeatedly said the cuts left health and social care in a “parlous state”.

And now, DPM Dowden has suggested that the “flip-side” to planning for a no-deal Brexit was that it forced Government departments to work closer together.

Hugo Keith KC, counsel to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, asked Dowden about a 2019 memo about the National Security Council THRC (threats hazards and resilience contingencies programmes) which suggested that work on pandemic influenza was expected to be affected by the “step-up in planning for a no-deal exit from the European Union”.

Dowden (pictured below, left) said: “We had to ensure that we allocated resources according to where the greatest risk lay.

The National:

“Now, it was the case at that time that ‘no deal’ was the default position of the Government, so – and this is worth remembering the kind of frankly, apocryphal warnings that were being delivered about the consequences of no-deal Brexit, for example in relation to medicine supplies and elsewhere – it was appropriate that … we shifted the resilience function to deal with this.

“Secondly, it was not a permanent shift, we knew that this thing would come to an end since we had an endpoint for if we didn’t reach a deal, no deal would happen.”

He added that there was a “flip side” to the preparations for a no-deal Brexit, known as Operation Yellowhammer, which made the UK “match fit” for the pandemic.

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“There was a flip side to this which was that the preparation, particularly through the Yellowhammer structures, made us match fit for when … we did have to deal with the the actual materialisation of the Covid pandemic – that is to say it forced Government departments to work together closely, so there’s a lot more cross-government co-ordination,” he said.

“In addition, in relation to this we searched additional capacity into the department, I believe we recruited around 15,000 extra staff, who then were able to be redeployed once the threat of no deal had passed in order to further step up our preparedness, to contribute to our Covid response.”

Earlier, Professor Sir Mark Walport, the Government’s former chief scientific adviser. said the UK was “not operationally prepared” for a pandemic.

He told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry: “I think, scientifically, the country was quite prepared then in the sense that it was recognised. I think operation preparedness is another matter.

“I think it’s clear that we were not operationally prepared.”

He added: “I think that focus in richer countries has moved away from infectious diseases after the Second World War.

“With the rise of chronic inflammatory diseases, cardiac disease, hypertension, diabetes, there was much more of a focus on those and away from infection.”

It came after a Tory former health minister said “making money is not a crime” as he defended the VIP lane for coronavirus-related contracts which saw some politically-connected firms make huge profits.

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Lord Bethell also blamed “longstanding” inequalities for the NHS not being sufficiently prepared for the pandemic.

He was speaking after former prime minister David Cameron and his chancellor Osborne rejected claims at the inquiry that their austerity measures left the UK exposed to the pandemic.

Medics and unions have insisted that cuts to public services under their leadership between 2010 and 2016 depleted health and social care capacity.