The government’s national security advisers warned of the threat of a pandemic. “I don’t know why more wasn’t done,” said oneby Steve Bloomfield / April 7, 2020 / Leave a comment
“The risk of human pandemic disease remains one of the highest we face,” stated the UK government’s 2010 national security strategy. The “possible impacts of a future pandemic,” it continued, “could be that up to one half of the UK population becomes infected, resulting in between 50,000 and 750,000 deaths in the UK, with corresponding disruption to everyday life.”
According to the government’s national risk register, published at the same time, a pandemic would lead to “normal life… likely fac[ing] wide social and economic disruption; significant threats to the continuity of essential services; lower production levels; shortages; and distribution difficulties. Individual organisations may suffer from the pandemic’s impact on staff absenteeism therefore reducing the services available.”
In short, we knew this would happen. Ten years ago, the government’s new national security council, led by its first ever national security adviser, Peter Ricketts, placed the risk of a pandemic higher and greater than a military invasion. Why, then, were we not prepared?
“We put it up in lights,” recalled Ricketts, when I spoke to him over the phone last week. “But it never got the resourcing because there was always an immediate crisis.” And yet, the 2010 strategy was written in the wake of the swine flu pandemic. “That should have been a wake-up call,” said Ricketts. “I don’t know why more wasn’t done. There was always a higher priority than buying more ventilators.”
His successor, Mark Lyall Grant, who authored the follow-up strategy in 2015 that also categorised a pandemic as a “tier one” risk, was even blunter, questioning the role of other government departments. “Getting the Treasury to allocate money for contingencies is extremely difficult,” he told me. Furthermore, “I don’t recall the Department of Health (DoH) arguing that they needed more money to meet this risk.”
One reason the Treasury and the DoH might have been reluctant to spend any extra money on dealing with the possibility of a pandemic is because the government repeatedly insisted there was no extra money for anything. The UK’s realisation that pandemics were a major risk coincided with the longest period of austerity since the Second World War.
“Our ability to meet these current and future threats depends crucially on tackling the budget deficit,”…