“Supply in some areas, particularly gowns and certain types of masks and aprons, is in short supply at the moment, and that must be an extremely anxious time for people working on the frontline, but they should be assured that we are doing everything we can to correct this issue, and to get them the equipment that they need,”
ROBERT JENRICK - Housing, communities and local government secretary April 11th 2020
“Even if every single person in Britain needs a gas mask there’ll still be enough to go round.”
PATHÉ NEWSREEL COMMENTATOR - 1937
In 1937, with clear signs that Nazi Germany was preparing for war and mindful of the horrors inflicted by poison gas during World War 1, the British government decided to issue all 38 million civilian members of the UK population with gas masks. To this end they set up a factory in a disused mill in Blackburn, Lancashire. By the Munich Crisis of 30th September 1938 the first 30 million gas masks had already been made and stored in depots all over the country. A year later, on the outbreak of war itself on 3rd September 1939, all 38 million were being distributed, free of charge, to the public and widely supported by instructional films, lectures, posters and pamphlets. The Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had something to say on the subject…
“How horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
The gas masks came in various shapes and sizes, from the General Civilian Respirator for children aged 4 to adults, a red “Mickey Mouse” adaptation with a vague resemblance to the popular Disney character and a bag shaped version for babies with bellows operated by an adult. They were designed by scientists at Porton Down at a cost of 2/11d each (2 shillings and 11 pence) to provide protection from all poison gases known at the time including chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas.
People were encouraged to wear gas-masks for 15 minutes a day to get used to the experience. The government pleaded with people to carry their gas masks with them at all times, publishing posters that said: “Hitler will send no warning - so always carry your gas mask”… but gas masks were never popular. They were hot and sweaty and the smell of the rubber made many people feel sick. A survey conducted at the time of issue in September 1939 suggested that 71 per cent of the men and 76 per cent of the women carried masks; by 30 October the figures were 58% and 59%; by 9 November a mere 24% and 39%.
George Formby “I Did What I Could With My Gas Mask”
Pathe News report 1937 Opening the first Gas Mask factory
Fortunately, civilian gas masks were never needed. Although both Britain and Germany carried stocks of poison gas neither countries used them out of a fear that the other country might use theirs in retaliation.
On the 6th July 1944, fearing that rocket attacks on London would get even worse, Prime Minister Churchill asked his military chiefs to “think very seriously over this question of using poison gas…. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany… We could stop all work at the flying bombs starting points… and if we do it, let us do it one hundred per cent.”
Fortunately, Churchill was advised against the use of gas because it would inevitably provoke Germany to retaliate with gas. Maybe the members of the Joint Planning Staff were aware that the Allies were already working on a weapon far more destructive than poison gas - the Atom Bomb.
As early as 1935 the British Government was aware that a future war with Germany was likely and that poison gas might be used against our civilian population. That is why they came to the decisive, expensive decision to provide gas masks to every single member of the population, both young and old. By September 1939 38 million masks had been made and distributed.
In October 2016 Exercise Cygnus confirmed alarming gaps in this country’s preparedness in the face of a flu pandemic. The confidential recommendations that followed the exercise were never published. Phillip Lee, the former Liberal Democrat MP who was a Conservative minister at the time of Cygnus, said the exercise had a very sobering impact on government. “We knew we were not prepared for a pandemic from the Cygnus report,” Lee said. “It was a mistake not to publish it at the time. If we were not going to act on the lessons, then what was the point of the exercise?” A key recommendation discussed in June 2017 was the need for the government to develop “a pandemic influenza concept of operations” to improve coordination between the “complex network of partners” involved in a pandemic response. Crucially, the government was advised to “strengthen the surge capability and capacity in operational resources in certain areas. If demand outstrips local supply, there will be a need to scale up the response, for example to regional level. This was particularly true for excess deaths, social care and the NHS.”
Lee said: “The question I would very much like to ask the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and Michael Gove, who has responsibility in the Cabinet Office, is when did they read the Cygnus report that has not been published and, having read that report, why did they conclude not to increase testing, PPE and ventilator capacity in January?”
A Department of Health spokesman said the UK was “one of the most prepared countries in the world for pandemics”. He added: “We have followed a science-led action plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate the outbreak and acted swiftly to save lives and support our NHS, including prioritising access to testing and PPE for the frontline.”
– from Martyn Day