More Britons could be at risk in the event of a new pandemic, according to experts who claim that our preparations and defences against such an outbreak have been wound down.
Despite the lessons that could have been learned from the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, some of the country’s top scientists say little has been done to prepare the UK for a similar situation.
Their warning came amid news, as reported in The Independent, that a new Covid-19 variant in India was behind a surge of 10,000 cases a day there and could become even more aggressive.
They feared it could become dominant in the UK and that an epidemic on the scale of the previous pandemic was inevitable.
They cited disinvestment in the monitoring of infections, the poor state of the NHS and the disassembling of key infrastructure as reasons that the country was “losing ground” in the fight against coronavirus.
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The Indian variant known as Arcturus was first identified three months ago and has already spread to around 22 countries, including Britain and America. As a result, India has resumed its production of vaccines.
Sir John Bell, an eminent immunologist and geneticist, who was a member of the UK’s Covid vaccine taskforce during the pandemic, said Covid-19 could not be dismissed as a “once in a generation crisis”.
In an article for The Independent, he said it was a matter of when, not if, another pandemic struck, and that the UK needed a much better healthcare system to improve the monitoring and identifying of future issues.
He wrote: “Despite everything we have learned, we are not ready for the next pandemic [which] could be even more devastating than the last. We must be in a constant state of readiness for the next big health crisis – if we do not act now, we will not be forgiven.”
Scientific modelling suggested there was around a 40 per cent chance that another pandemic would happen within our lifetime, bringing with it “the potential to cause even greater destruction”, he added.
Professor Teresa Lambe, a principal investigator on the Oxford-AstraZeneca programme, said Britain had not learned the lessons surrounding Covid and that the population would be “sitting ducks” if the Government failed to invest in preventive measures.
She cited the Government’s decision to dismantle programmes, including its “gold standard” Covid survey, as a sign that the country was not properly prepared for another Covid outbreak.
She wrote on The Independent’s website: “Without more of a concerted effort to work together and invest in pandemic preparedness, we are sitting ducks for the next virus.”
Other scientists claimed that the situation was not being helped, with the mothballing of Covid laboratories and plans to sell off the UK Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre. This was being compounded with the continuing crises within the NHS, including strikes, A&E waiting times and ambulance delays.
One former chief scientific adviser to the Government, Sir David King, who was behind the research in 2016 that predicted a Covid-style pandemic, said the world could be facing a similar situation well before the year 2040.
“We’re in the same position as we were in 2020,” he told the news website. “Nothing has changed… if anything, it has got worse.”
Professor Peter Horby, head of the Pandemic Sciences Institute, agreed the UK was ill-prepared for a new pandemic, adding that the lack of sustained government investment meant researchers were now having to rely on philanthropic funding.
“There were some good strategic moves by the UK Government [in response to the pandemic], but I have been disappointed by what’s happened since then,” he was reported as saying. “Instead of building on the successes, [the Government has] been dismantling the successes.”
He added: “We may be back in the position that we saw ourselves in 2020, where we’ve got a new threat and we don’t have the diagnostics, the drugs, the vaccine, or the surveillance capabilities.”
The Department of Health and Social Care was contacted for comment.