Is the government prepared for another pandemic?


Henry Howard examines whether the UK government has learnt from Covid and is ready for another pandemic

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Image by Andrew Parsons

By Henry Howard

The Covid-19 pandemic impacted the lives of everyone within the UK and led to the deaths of at least 178,000 people. Despite repeated claims of preparedness by the government in the years leading up to 2020, a review by the National Audit Office (NAO) at the end of 2021 found that the ‘TheCovid-19 Pandemic has highlighted the UK’s vulnerability to an emergency that affects the whole of government, society, and the economy.’

This sparks the question, what has been learnt by those in power? The recent transmission of Monkeypox cases in the UK may be seen by many as a cause for concern, dredging up memories from only two years ago – even if the nature of the two diseases are very different and due to a fortunate similarity between Monkeypox and Smallpox, there is a vaccine available. Though governments may not have quite as great a stockpile as they would hope, the relatively low transmissibility of the virus means a smaller portion of the population require vaccination for herd immunity to be reached.

Additionally, unlike the existing Covid-19 vaccines, they can be administered after a person becomes infected, meaning they are not only a preventative measure, but can also act as a cure. The consensus among the experts is generally rather clear; our familiarity with the disease coupled with various other factors such as its low tendency to mutate mean we should be able to halt the spread of Monkeypox without the implementation of draconian measures, and the consequences to the economy that comes with them. Although the government may appear, albeit fortuitously, prepared to eliminate the threat posed by a virus such as Monkeypox, this does not mean we have ‘solved’ the problem posed by the risk of pandemics. The main strategy pursued by the UK government throughout Covid was of course the locking down of society, a strategy implemented to some extent by almost every nation. However, shutting down the majority of society is crippling to the economy. The UK economy shrank by 9.9 percent in 2020, the largest contraction in history.

The ability of a government to implement a lockdown, with a population who oblige is not a characteristic of preparedness, but rather a ‘get out of jail free card’ to buy an unprepared government some much needed time, at an almost catastrophic economic cost. Were the government required to play another such card soon, it is difficult to comprehend how the economy would recover, as well as the extent of citizen compliance. This serves to demonstrate how crucial it is for the government to be better prepared. Whether through substantial and sufficient provisions of PPE, or a robust and ready track & trace system, the government must continue to bolster its preparedness for another health emergency.

The UK government though, cannot be held entirely accountable for every Covid fatality. Frankly, we are a primarily unhealthy society. 28 percent of UK adults are obese, and a further 36 percent are overweight, rendering 64 percent of the UK population increasingly vulnerable to respiratory infections.

In order to achieve this, the government has introduced several measures intended to help the population to lose weight. Their flagship scheme requires food businesses with over 250 employees to add calorie labels to their menus with plans to extend this to alcohol sales. Despite the government seemingly making a concerted effort, the efficacy of the scheme is hotly debated.

A study undertaken by the Eco-nomic and Social Research Institute found that diners ordered 93 less calories from menus that displayed calorie counts, thus showing the benefits of the practice. Talking to the Guardian, the director of Obesity UK thought “it might not be helpful,” however, continued to add that there is far more to healthy eating than simply calorie counting, noting the importance of a balanced and nutritious diet rather than just a low calorie one.

In addition, the cost of living emergency has caused the government to slow in its fight against obesity. Most notably, by scrapping the proposed ban on buy-one-get-one-free junk food deals for at least a year. Recently, Johnson was even asked about his own diet and exercise regime which he embarked upon after his stay in hospital when he caught Covid, responding that there were too many distractions to keep it up.

Furthermore, on top of Covid, the population’s unhealthy lifestyles have put greater pressure on an NHS which is close to breaking point. Not only the government then, but most of the population and the NHS were unprepared for a pandemic in 2020. Pressure on the NHS, which is intrinsically linked to the obesity crisis, needs to be reduced drastically for the country to be better prepared for another pandemic, and it appears that the government’s lull in the fight against obesity could keep the NHS close to breaking point.

It is not only obesity which is affecting the NHS, but they are still dealing with backlog as a result of Covid, leading to large waiting lists.

Overall, assessing whether the government is, or isn’t prepared for a health emergency on the scale of a pandemic, is entirely dependent on the nature of the virus in question. Ultimately, preparation can only go so far, particularly in the case of a greatly transmissible respiratory disease such as Covid 19. The government must maintain its stockpiles of PPE and specialist ventilation equipment, as well as produce a clear, demarcated, pandemic response plan, with a robust contact tracing system which can be initiated rapidly. Even this is insufficient. To further prepare the population, the government should not delay or desist in tackling the growing obesity epidemic, to maximise the protection of its citizens