UK ‘neglecting’ future pandemic threat – warning issued as Boris Johnson urged ‘act now’

Boris Johnson issues warning about ‘blizzard’ of coronavirus

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Dame Kate Bingham, who stood down from her role at the end of last year, said the UK was “woefully underprepared” for the COVID-19 pandemic and urged ministers to act now to build defences against a future catastrophe. She said there is a “devastating” lack of skills and experience in science, industry, commerce and manufacturing in the civil service and criticised a culture of “group think and risk aversion” that “stifles initiative and encourages foot-dragging”.

She suggested it was only the intervention of chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, who has a background in pharmaceutical company research and development, that allowed the creation of the vaccine taskforce outside normal Whitehall structures.

The taskforce selected and pre-ordered the most promising vaccine candidates while they were still in clinical trials which enabled the speedy rollout of the vaccine programme.

But Dame Kate said that if there had been a reliance on the Government’s existing machinery the vaccine programme may not have seen the same success.

She added that the UK “lost the chance” to build a rapid protein production capability – the biotechnological process of generating a specific protein – because Whitehall lacked the strategic and scientific understanding of a remarkable new technology.

The Government was woefully unprepared for this pandemic

Dame Kate Bingham

This lost both the resilience to manage future pandemics and lost an economic opportunity, she said.

She also criticised the Government’s decision to pull out of a deal with French pharmaceutical company Valneva before it had finished the clinical testing of its Covid-19 vaccine.

The decision was not only a blow to international pandemic efforts, but will dampen the UK’s resilience to future disease outbreaks, she said.

She called for ministers to take a more “positive and proactive” approach to dealing with the life sciences industry and urged for more scientists to be hired as civil servants to help make key decisions in the event of any future deadly disease outbreaks.

Meanwhile, she called for a pandemic security adviser or minister to ensure the UK’s preparedness capabilities, arguing that healthcare threats are just as serious as national security and defence and should be treated with the same importance.

Later on Tuesday, in a speech at Oxford University, she will say: “The Government was woefully unprepared for this pandemic. There will be more pandemics in the future, and they could be more lethal – like Ebola which kills 90 percent of those infected.

“Across government there is a devastating lack of skills and experience in science, industry, commerce and manufacturing – the very skills needed to bring an unproven medicine from the laboratory safely and effectively into people’s arms.

“The machinery of government is dominated by process, rather than outcome, causing delay and inertia.

“There is an obsessive fear of personal error and criticism, a culture of group think and risk aversion that stifles initiative and encourages foot-dragging.

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“Government must be braver. It needs to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset in which people are rewarded for flair and results.

“It needs to take a positive, proactive approach to the life sciences industry.

“The Government lacks the knowledge and interest to detect the differences between money-grabbing opportunism and valuable corporate behaviour. This leads to some damaging decisions.”

She will add: “We are neglecting the most likely threat to the nation – the next pandemic.

“We must act now to build our defences against a future catastrophe. Another war is coming, let’s make sure we have the right people, with the right skills to fight it.”

Dame Kate’s views echo similar comments made by the Prime Minister’s former top aide, Dominic Cummings, and the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee.

Mr Cummings has been openly critical of how the early stages of the pandemic were dealt with by the Government, and previously told Sky News that the Government system for dealing with crises is a “disaster”.

A Government spokesperson said: “Thanks to our collective national effort and our preparations for flu, we have saved lives, vaccinated tens of millions of people and prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed.

“Throughout the pandemic we have been guided by scientific and medical experts and we never shied away from taking quick and decisive action to save lives and protect our NHS.

“We prepare for a range of scenarios and while there were extensive arrangements in place, this is an unprecedented pandemic that has challenged health systems around the world.

“We have always said there are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic and have committed to a full public inquiry in spring.”

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