We cannot afford to be unprepared for the next pandemic

The most regrettable – indeed dangerous – consequence of the government’s “living with Covid” approach is that it leaves the country so poorly prepared for the next pandemic, or indeed a recrudescence of Covid, such as via the Arcturus coronavirus subvariant that is now emerging.

Editorial www.independent.co.uk 

As our package of reports highlights, there is worrying evidence that the authorities are taking unacceptable risks with public health. Sad to say, it is as if Britain has learned nothing from the initial response to the coronavirus crisis in the spring of 2020. Have we really learned so little, and forgotten so much?

While the return to normality – thanks to the combined efforts of the NHS, the public compliance with the emergency lockdowns and the vaccines – is obviously welcome, Covid has not gone away. Far from it.

People are still being hospitalised, even as milder variants have come into circulation, and new strains, variants and subvariants will continue to evolve. Some may be less damaging to human health than previous ones but some may be more so, either because they are more infectious or more inherently lethal, more vaccine evasive, or any combination of those factors.

In the case of the Arcturus subvariant of Omicron, also known as subvariant XBB.1.16, it seems the issue is one of infectivity and of pathogenicity – that is to say, its capacity to harm a larger number of individuals, and each one more severely.

Virologists have told The Independent that the Arcturus variant is responsible for a surge of 10,000 new Covid cases a day in India: it could easily become the dominant strain in the UK. Even if the effects on mortality were relatively small, the arrival of Arcturus could well mean an increase in hundreds of cases per day, with corresponding incremental pressure on the NHS.

What of future variants? The next virus, zoonotic or otherwise? Perhaps that will be even more infectious and more lethal than its predecessors. The recent concerns about avian flu should remind all concerned that the intrusion of humans and their livestock into the habitats of wild animals, most notably in “wet” markets, is a constant threat to human life as well as to agriculture.

Are the Department of Health and Social Care, the devolved administrations and the UK Health Security Agency doing all that is required to monitor the situation and prepare for the worst? On that, there is some cause for concern. The fact is that a pandemic on the scale of the recent Covid outbreaks may not necessarily be a once-in-a-generation or once-a-century event. In fact, the next one could come much sooner, and be even more devastating. We are underprepared.

According to some of the most respected experts in the field, the UK has moved too rapidly to dismantle the infrastructure that was eventually built up, at enormous cost, during the pandemic.

Some would say the world has been through many such scares in recent decades, and nothing came of them – but that is partly because vigilance and rapid actions prevented a more widespread outbreak. The coronavirus also demonstrates that the experts aren’t always “crying wolf”.

Yet, despite recent traumas, the government has decided to disband tracking systems, including the Covid survey, and mothball testing labs. It also intends to sell off the UK Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre – before it had even opened. It seems a long time now since Boris Johnson was championing the UK’s world-leading work on Covid vaccines as a symbol of Global Britain’s scientific prowess.

Overlaying all of this is the inescapable fact that the NHS is in an even more vulnerable position than it was three years ago. Today there is also a disturbing wave of wild misinformation on social media about the lockdowns being unnecessary, the Covid vaccines being unsafe, and even that the entire pandemic was merely some exercise in mass control, even though the mass control has been all but abandoned. Such absurd conspiracy theories are being put around with scant effort to contest them. Again, this is a further risk to public health.

To all of this, ministers may simply shrug and plead lack of funds. The public services, including the NHS, have to contend with a formidable range of more immediate challenges than the inchoate possibilities of a new pandemic. This is patently true, but we have only to reflect on the vast cost – at least £400bn – of the last pandemic to Britain to understand the force of the old medical adage about prevention being better than cure.

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