Pandemic planning should be ‘free from political interference’, say academics

Ellen Manning
·3-min read
Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty (left) and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance stand with Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on Coronavirus (COVID-19) after the governmentÕs COBRA meeting. Picture date: Monday March 16, 2020. See PA story HEALTH Coronavirus. Photo credit should read: Richard Pohle/The Times /PA Wire
Planning for any future pandemics should be free from 'political interference', academics have suggested. (Picture: Richard Pohle/The Times /PA Wire)

Planning for any future pandemics should be “free from political interference”, a group of academics have suggested.

Researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University, the Cass Business School in London, Nottingham University and Vlerick Business School in Belgium proposed a new body that works independently, similar to the Bank of England, to deal with preparing for pandemics.

The Department of Health “has been found wanting” during the coronavirus outbreak, a paper by the researchers said, and they suggested that early warnings of the threat of Covid-19 had been missed, leaving workers facing “unprecedented” risks “on a daily basis, due to the inadequacy of their government’s approach to preparation”.

The researchers said that: “independent responsibility for national future preparedness should be handed to the NHS free from political interference”.

Proposing the new independent body, they said: “The stability of the UK’s financial system is based on the Bank of England remaining free from day-to-day political influence, having specific statutory responsibilities for regulation across multiple domains.

“It is time that national emergency preparedness, resilience, and response to transboundary risks follows suit via a public body with governance arrangements similar to those of the Bank of England.

“This public body would be enshrined in law, with the NHS pandemic preparedness and resilience responsibilities falling under its umbrella.”

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The report, published in the Journal of Risk Research, described a “lack of urgency by the UK government and its agencies to ramp up their preparedness and systemic resilience in the face of early mounting evidence and warnings from mid-January” following events in China.

It added: “It is perhaps no coincidence that countries such as South Korea, which learned concrete lessons from its severe experience of Sars in 2002–2003, have been better at both anticipating and containing COVID-19.”

The researchers said while the UK had carried out preparedness tests for possible pandemics such as Exercise Cygnus, the findings of them “were clearly never acted upon in a meaningful way”.

They added that the “mild” consequences of the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic in the UK meant the resilience of response plans was not thoroughly tested and if it had been, stockpiling of PPE and ventilators would have been taken more seriously.

The paper said: “There can be no substitute for actionable and feasible emergency preparedness and resilience plans, devoid of short-term politicisation.

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re a national health provider or a Texan supermarket chain.

“If you don’t invest in developing resilience through financial resources and strategic direction, your likelihood of success is reduced. To paraphrase the Chinese proverb, without rice, even the cleverest cannot cook.”

Lead researcher Dr Cormac Bryce, of Cass Business School, said: “The warnings to prepare were there for those willing to look and act for years. ”

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