UK ‘no better prepared for the next pandemic’ with ‘dangerous gaps’ in its health security

UK ‘no better prepared for the next pandemic’ with ‘dangerous gaps’ in its health security

A Covid-19 patient at the Royal Brompton Hospital AICU (Adult Intensive Care Unit) is carefully moved through the corridors to have a CT scan to check lung function – Simon Townsley /The Telegraph

The UK is no better prepared for the next pandemic than it was for the coronavirus, a former top Government scientific advisor has warned.

Ahead of the Covid-19 inquiry – which kicks off on Tuesday with preliminary hearings on Britain’s pandemic preparedness and response – academics, Government insiders and industry experts said the country still has “dangerous gaps” in its health security.

The UK has performed well in several areas, including vaccine development, the agility of regulators and the ONS surveillance programme. But experts are concerned that key infrastructure has been sold or dismantled, that coordination within Whitehall on pandemics is lacking, and that the NHS would not survive another deadly new virus.

“I was one of the people who thought the pandemic would be a great incentive to sort ourselves out,” Professor John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford and a member of the UK’s Covid vaccine task force during the pandemic, told the Telegraph.

“It hasn’t quite worked out like that, if I’m honest. We did lose hundreds of billions, maybe trillions of pounds, so it was a pretty robust kick. But say we got a transmissible avian flu – or worse, a virus which carried a fatality rate of about 30 or 40 per cent. Would we be ready? I think the answer is absolutely not,” he said.

UK ‘no better prepared for the next pandemic’ with ‘dangerous gaps’ in its health security

The Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre on the Harwell science and innovations campus near Didcot – Richard Pohle/WPA Pool/Getty Images

In particular, experts are critical of the sale of the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre in April, a £200-million government-funded centre that aimed to combine vaccine manufacturing and research in one place.

The Government said this was needed to keep the site open, and the takeover by Catalent Biotherapeutics will “strengthen” the life sciences industry – much like Moderna’s decision to build an mRNA vaccine plant in Britain, with almost £400m of UK funding.

But Professor Rebecca Glover, an assistant professor in infectious disease policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, called the sale “short sighted”.

“Dismantling important long-term preparedness infrastructures like the VMIC makes little economic or public health sense,” she said, adding that it gives the Government less flexibility to respond to new threats.

Industry insiders are also concerned that there are gaps in the UK’s ability to manufacture new drugs, especially antibody treatments, and that scientific and commercial expertise has not been brought into Whitehall.

Outbreaks ‘more likely’ than military invasion

In the summer Kate Bingham, who headed the UK’s vaccine taskforce, told the Guardian she would not return to the role in another pandemic because the Government “shouldn’t be scrambling for people on the outside to come in and help”.

Prof Bell said that he had hoped the pandemic would push the UK to treat health security more like a national security threat, with a clear central command responsible for coordinating any response – especially as this is “more likely” than a military invasion.

“The government still hasn’t operationalised the response to pandemic threats – if the Russians attacked us, we’d turn to the armed forces. Where’s the equivalent for pathogens? Governments are increasingly letting pandemic planning fall down the priority list, which is a mistake,” he said.

Adam Bradshaw, a public health analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, added: “Health security is national security. That means being able to manufacture your own medical products – whether vaccines or PPE or therapeutics. It’s a small investment now for a massive payoff in the future.”

He said funding cuts for both the UK Health Security Agency and the international aid budget has also hit investment in scientific initiatives across the globe, including disease surveillance. Britain had been a key backer of a “pandemic radar” at the G7.

“The major lack of funding leaves a major hole,” Mr Bradshaw said. “Two years ago everyone was saying we’d never underinvest again… that promise has been broken.”

‘It is our achilles heel’

Experts are also concerned that the NHS is in a more fragile state than when Covid emerged in early 2020. Even if targets to develop a new vaccine within 100 days of discovering a new pathogen are met, it would be at the forefront of a crisis for three months.

“It is our achilles heel,” said Prof Bell. “If we got clobbered by a really nasty virus, or a virus with a 30-40 per cent mortality, the health system wouldn’t stand up to it.

“I’m normally optimistic, I don’t want to be a doom monger. But I think people do need to be aware of the fact that the pandemic we just went through – which has had very large suffering and a very large death toll – was, in pathogen terms, not that bad,” Prof Bell said.

He added that he did think that the UK is better prepared in terms of testing infrastructure – and it was right to roll this back when the acute risk subsided.

Disease surveillance and vaccine development are also areas of strength, while the UKHSA pointed to several initiatives – including the National Variant Assessment Platform, and the new Centre for Pandemic Preparedness – as significant developments.

The first phase of the Covid inquiry, chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, kicks off on Tuesday in London, after being postponed for two weeks due to the Queen’s death. The session is largely procedural, and public hearings will not begin until spring 2023. The first phase will examine Britain’s pandemic preparedness and response.

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