FOIMan recalls a previous pandemic scare and an FOI request it provoked.

The current spread of coronavirus COVID-19 is dominating the news. As might be expected at such a time, there is much interest from the public as to how public authorities are preparing. A quick search of ‘coronavirus’ or ‘pandemic’ on WhatDoTheyKnow gives an indication of what people want to know:

  • safety measures being taken
  • quarantine arrangements
  • contingency plans
  • how much is it costing?

Of course, this is not the first time (even in recent memory) that there have been fears of a pandemic – though COVID-19 does seem to be more serious a threat than previous scares of this sort in the last few years.

Back in 2006, ‘bird flu’ H5N1 was the threat. The Mayor of London at the time, Ken Livingstone, announced his ‘GLA Group Pandemic Flu Response Plan’. Amongst the many precautions taken at the time, it was well publicised that the GLA had purchased 100,000 packs of Tamiflu, a drug used to treat flu which at the time – for obvious reasons – was much in demand. The aim was to ensure that public services in London could keep going in the event of an outbreak. They would have been provided to police and fire officers, tube drivers and other essential GLA Group employees (probably not FOI officers I fear) if they were suffering to ensure their swift recovery. This was an important element of the plan, as the prediction was that up to 25% of the workforce could be incapacitated at the height of an outbreak.

Although it is easy to see why such precautions were taken, there was some criticism at the time of the fact that all these drugs were being bought up, and that the public wouldn’t directly benefit. You can get some sense of the unease from this contemporary blogpost on the Londonist website (from where I’ve refreshed my own memory of some of the above).

As always, contemporary events influenced what people were interested in when it came to making FOI requests. The GLA saw a rise in questions about bird flu and our plans as many authorities today will be seeing. One request in particular sticks in my mind. It asked for more details on the purchased Tamiflu: how much there was, where it was stored, and what security arrangements were in place. How much there was was in the public domain, so no problem there. The other information was not going to be released. The exemptions I used at the time (from memory) were s.31(1)(a) – arguing that disclosure would be likely to prejudice the prevention of crime since it would facilitate criminal attempts to obtain Tamiflu – and s.38(1)(a) and (b) – explaining that disclosure would be likely to harm the health of GLA Group employees (as if supplies were stolen, the drugs wouldn’t be available to treat them) and the safety of GLA employees at the facilities where the Tamiflu was stored. If this sounds extreme, it is worth bearing in mind that there was some hysteria around at the time and the idea that a mob might descend on the buildings where the drug was stored was not a complete fantasy. The public interest in maintaining the security and safety of GLA property and staff was fairly straightforward to make out.

If you’re a practitioner dealing with requests about coronavirus right now, you may well have to use these exemptions to refuse access to the more sensitive aspects of your authority’s contingency plans. If you’re a requester, be aware that there will be some information that you won’t be able to access for very good reasons. And if an outbreak does occur, there’s a very good chance that it will – amongst other things – disrupt the handling of FOI requests. So go easy on FOI officers if they don’t respond on time in the event of a pandemic – they probably won’t have been given any Tamiflu.


Photo of tablets by Pixabay