The UK is not ready for the next global pandemic as public services are disrupted and key research is underfunded, experts said.
More than three years after the global outbreak of the coronavirus, top scientists have warned that the UK is no better prepared for a pandemic than it was in 2020.
They say another outbreak of the magnitude of Covid-19 is inevitable, but that divestment in infection monitoring services, the dismantling of key infrastructure and the state of the NHS mean the country is “losing ground”.
The alarm comes as the virologists have said The independent that the new Covid-19 variant behind a surge of 10,000 new Covid cases a day in India could become more aggressive and could become the dominant strain in the UK.
The variant, first identified in January and known as Arcturus, has been found in 22 countries, including the UK and the US, and prompted India to resume vaccine production.
Sir John Bell, a leading immunologist and member of the UK’s Covid vaccine task force during the pandemic, said it was too easy to dismiss Covid-19 as a ‘once in a generation crisis’.
Write inside The independentwarned it is “a matter of when, not if, another pandemic strikes,” adding that the nation must adopt an “always-on” approach that includes building a more resilient health care system, better surveillance, and identification of future threats.
“Despite everything we have learned, we are not ready for the next pandemic,” he wrote. “The next pandemic could be even more devastating than the previous one. We must constantly be ready for the next major health crisis: if we don’t act now, we won’t be forgiven.”
He referred to models that suggest there is a 38% chance of another pandemic occurring in our lifetime, which would have “the potential to cause even greater destruction.”
Professor Teresa Lambe, a principal investigator leading the Oxford-AstraZeneca programme, said the UK had failed to take into account many “hard-learned lessons” from Covid. She warned that the public will be “sitting duck” in a new pandemic if there is no further effort by the government to invest in preparedness.
He highlighted the government’s decision to “disband” tracing systems – including its “gold standard” Covid survey, the last remaining system used to monitor infections – as a sign that the country would not be fully prepared for a another pandemic.
Write inside The independent, described such surveillance systems as “crucial” for identifying new variants, tracking case numbers and helping the UK curb any spread of the virus. She added: “We have learned over and over again that we need to monitor this virus closely to distinguish whether current vaccine recommendations are sufficient.”
He added: “Without more than a concerted effort to work together and invest in pandemic preparedness, we are mere ducks for the next virus.”
‘Nothing has changed’
Some experts have also highlighted the issue of mothballed Covid testing laboratories and plans to sell the UK’s future vaccine manufacturing and research laboratory – the UK Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Center – before it even opens.
Moreover, after a year of record emergency room waits, ambulance delays and growing waiting lists, there are concerns that the NHS is now in a worse position to deal with a pandemic than it was when Covid hit three years ago.
Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser who led the 2006 research that closely predicted the Covid pandemic, said the world was likely to see another virus outbreak of the same scale in the next 15 years.
She said The independent: “We are in the same position as in 2020. Nothing has changed… if anything, it has gotten worse.”
Sir David said the government had failed to invest in the NHS and that he “had no doubts” that it was in “a worse position than it was three years ago”.
The former government adviser added that by failing to fund the health service or strengthen Britain’s capacity to respond to another pandemic, the government was “discounting the future”.
“This is what the 2020 pandemic demonstrated: that we had abandoned all processes that would have managed the epidemic. I don’t see any signs of a turnaround right now,” she said.
“If you wait until the next outbreak, which I think is where the government might be now – if you wait until the next vaccine is developed, for whatever disease it is, it will be months and months before that vaccine arrives. We cannot rely on this. We will have many, many cases, it will really get out of hand again and then we will have hospitals completely overwhelmed by an outbreak like this.”
Professor Peter Horby, head of the innovative Covid Recovery process and head of the Pandemic Sciences Institute, also warned that the UK would be ill-prepared if a new pandemic were to strike in the next few years.
The Oxford professor said while the government supported scientific work during Covid, divestment since then meant the UK was now “falling behind”. He said researchers in the Covid Recovery study – which launched in 2020 and identified four treatments for the disease – must rely on philanthropic funds because there is no sustained investment.
“There have been some good strategic moves by the UK government [in response to the pandemic]but I’ve been disappointed with what’s happened since then,” he said.
“What we have seen is that there has been a disruption in funding to some of the crown jewels of the UK response, such as the ONS survey, such as the Covid Geonomics Consortium, such as the Recovery process… [Covid lab] structures.
“Instead of building on successes, [the government has] I have dismantled the successes and I find it a potential risk for the future”.
He added: “We could go back to the position we saw ourselves in in 2020, where we have a new threat and we don’t have the diagnostics, drugs, vaccine or surveillance capabilities we would like. “
The Department of Health and Social Care has been contacted for comment.