James Ball

Anatomy of a fiasco: how Britain’s pandemic defences failed

The failures come down to a lack of imagination and a lack of attention

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In October, a panel of 21 experts from across the world gathered for the first of what promised to be a series of reports assessing readiness for pandemics. ‘Infectious diseases know no borders,’ warned the Global Health Security Index. ‘So all countries must prioritise and exercise the capabilities required to prevent, detect and rapidly respond to public health emergencies.’ Every country was called to be transparent about its capabilities ‘to assure neighbours it can stop an outbreak from becoming an international catastrophe’. Two countries were held up as the best examples: Britain and the United States.

If a league table were drawn up of countries that most failed to contain Covid deaths, the US and the UK would be pretty near the top. Yet both spent huge amounts of money on their pandemic preparedness and flattered themselves that their experts had built the strongest defence. The UK was ranked best in the world for its ability to stage ‘rapid response to and mitigation of the spread of an epidemic’. It was given 92 points out of 100. Six weeks later, the first Covid-19 case was recorded in China and the real test began.

From the offset, British officials felt pretty well prepared. On 11 March, Boris Johnson released a video of himself chatting with deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries. It would be a ‘quite a bad idea’ to wear a face mask in public, she said. The government’s ‘expert modellers’ had also found there was no need to ban mass gatherings. ‘I am absolutely delighted we are following the science and evidence,’ Dr Harries concluded.

Five days later, non-essential travel and attending pubs or clubs was discouraged. Twelve days after the video, pubs and clubs were shut down entirely and the lockdown introduced. Four days after that, Johnson revealed he had coronavirus.

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