The UK’s biological security strategy, published in 2018 to address the threat of pandemics, was not properly implemented, according to a former government chief scientific adviser.
Prof Sir Ian Boyd, who advised the environment department for seven years until last August and was involved in writing the strategy, told the Guardian that a lack of resources was to blame. Other experts said there was a gap between pandemic planning and action, and that the strategy had stalled.
The UK has been rated as one of the most prepared nations in the world, and some experts have said the coronavirus outbreak would have overwhelmed any government. However, a 2019 parliamentary inquiry into biological security was postponed and then cancelled because MPs were focused on Brexit and then the December general election.
Boyd said the government was aware of many risks with low likelihoods but potentially very high impacts on the nation, such as pandemics, severe storms and power blackouts. But he said these were assessed independently from one another, underplaying the total risk, which itself was rising due to climate change, population growth and the globalisation of travel.
Looked at alone, a pandemic had appeared unlikely to happen, he said. “As a result, getting sufficient resource just to write a decent biosecurity strategy was tough. Getting resource to properly underpin implementation of what it said was impossible.”
Boyd added: “The middle of a crisis may not be the best time to suggest why we should learn lessons … But many people are more likely to listen now. Certainly, nothing should distract us from getting ahead of Covid-19. My concern is that we should come out of this much wiser.”
The NHS is reported to have failed a government test of its ability to handle a pandemic, though the finding were not made public. Exercise Cygnus, a three-day dry run for a pandemic carried out in October 2016, examined how hospitals and other services would cope in a flu outbreak with a similar mortality rate to coronavirus.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, ministers were told three years ago that Britain would be overwhelmed, suffering a lack of critical care beds, morgue capacity and personal protective equipment.
Boyd said politicians found it tough to deliver large-scale preventive policies to a public unconcerned about major risks. “[They] often talk the talk but find it hard to walk the walk of the changes needed. As they are currently structured, governments are hopelessly underpowered to implement the about-turn needed on policy.”
The 2018 biological security strategy, the UK’s first, stated: “The UK is globally renowned for the quality of our preparedness planning [for] significant biological risks.” It noted that the UK spends hundreds of millions of pounds a year on the issue.
“However, these efforts have not always been as well coordinated as they could have been and we have sometimes failed to approach these issues with an international as well as a domestic perspective,” it said. As a result, “we may also fail to maximise the impact of our activities or to tackle issues as quickly as we need to.”
The strategy said the UK maintained “appropriate stockpiles of clinical countermeasures for diseases of concern”, made it a priority “to protect first responders through ensuring that they are equipped and trained properly” and had “a strong public communications capability to ensure we are able to engage swiftly and clearly with the public about any action they might need to take”.
As well as committing to improving government coordination and data sharing, and the communication of risk to the public, the strategy said: “We will develop a UK government response plan for major international diseases to ensure that the government is fully prepared to respond as quickly.”
The UK was ranked second in the world in 2019 by the Global Health Security (GHS) Index, with the US first. The independent GHS Index assessed the capability to prevent and mitigate pandemics in 195 countries.
In July 2019 the House of Commons joint committee on the national security strategy launched an inquiry into preparing for emerging infectious diseases. However, its first evidence session in October was postponed due to debates on Brexit and the calling of a general election. The December election meant the inquiry was cancelled.
Catherine Rhodes, head of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University, had been scheduled to give evidence to the MPs’ inquiry. She told the Guardian the UK had had fairly good pandemic planning in place.
“There does, however, seem to have been a significant gap between recognition of the risk and planning, and action on preparedness,” she said. “In particular, there could have been much better public communication in advance of the outbreak about the sort of measures that might be necessary in such a situation, and surge capacity in the NHS could have been substantially improved.”
Opi Outhwaite, at St Mary’s Law School in London, who was also scheduled to give evidence to the inquiry, said: ‘I think broadly that any government would likely have been overwhelmed by this outbreak.”
But she said: “The risk of an outbreak of this type has been known for some time, while the biological security strategy seemed to have stalled. The response aspect of the strategy focuses a lot on deployment of expertise to other parts of the world. To me this emphasises the idea that we needed to be preparing to respond to outbreaks overseas, with less emphasis on what we would do once an outbreak crossed into the UK.
“I suspect that we had to experience a pandemic here first-hand to shift the thinking. It’s very noticeable now hypothetical everything [in the strategy] appears.”
A government spokesman said: “The UK has well-established and world-leading capabilities for dealing with disease outbreaks and pandemics. The UK influenza pandemic preparedness strategy reflects experience and lessons learned from previous pandemics and was used in developing the coronavirus action plan, guided by clinical and scientific advice.”
Boyd said: “If there is a legacy of Covid-19, it might be that it is enough of a warning shot to enough people that it creates the political headroom for serious action.”