If one clear lesson is to be taken from our response to the arrival of Covid-19 three years ago, it is an appreciation of the highly effective role played by scientists in fighting the pandemic. Within weeks of the Sars-CoV-2 virus emerging, researchers had sequenced every one of its genes and had pinpointed the cells through which Covid-19 enters the body. By the end of the year, they had used that knowledge to create a safe, tested vaccine that played a crucial role in ending the pandemic. More than 7 million people across the planet have died of Covid-19 but the death toll would have been far higher had researchers not acted with such speed and potency.
Yet it is also becoming clear that on many occasions scientists were not listened to by national leaders. Economics and short-term political considerations were often given greater priority than scientific concerns. These resulted in failures to limit the spread of Covid-19. It is for this reason that the UK inquiry into the nation’s pandemic response, chaired by Heather Hallett, should be followed with rigorous attention.
The government had said it would always be guided by the science when it came to dealing with Covid. It is a claim that now looks distinctly hollow. Consider the “eat out to help out” scheme launched by the government, at the Treasury’s behest, in summer 2020. Pubs and restaurants had just been allowed to reopen but the public were, unsurprisingly, reluctant to mingle there. So people were bribed to eat out by the government.
The scheme allowed diners to claim 50% off more than 160m meals in August at a cost to the Treasury of about £850m. In the process it also drove up new infections by between 8% and 17%, according to one study carried out a few weeks later.
Crucially, it now appears scientists had not been asked their views about the scheme as it was being set up. Had they been allowed to express their views, their responses would probably have been robust. As one member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) that was dealing with the pandemic has put it, the scheme was “spectacularly stupid and an obscene way to spend public money”. These are harsh words to describe a policy that was the brainchild of the then chancellor of the exchequer, and our current prime minister, Rishi Sunak. His reluctance to cooperate with the inquiry should be judged in this light.
The crucial point is that No 10 and the Treasury not only disregarded scientists, but ministers and officials too. According to Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell’s book Johnson at 10, former health secretary Matt Hancock first learned about the scheme when the press release announcing its implementation was published. This is silo governance at its worst. Nor is it the only example of the government’s marred responses to the arrival of Covid-19.
So we should be clear about the need to expose the follies and failures that bedevilled our response to Covid. The nation has faced past examples of medical disasters and scandals. The contamination of blood supplies with HIV and hepatitis C in the 1970s and 1980s affected thousands and killed hundreds, for example. However, Covid-19’s impact on Britain was of a different order of magnitude. It led to the deaths of more than 225,000 individuals, produced lockdowns that tarnished the lives of virtually everyone, and has left thousands suffering from clinical depression and the effects of long Covid.
Another outbreak of a new disease on this scale would be devastating. Hence the need to examine the government’s response to Covid-19 in scrupulous detail and to pinpoint where and when it went wrong. Only then will we have a chance to build effective defences against future emerging pandemics.
And we should be clear about this last issue. Covid-19 will certainly not be the last zoonotic disease to ravage the world. Indeed, all evidence suggests the risk of more pandemics is rising as more wildernesses are ripped up and more disease-carrying animals are disturbed from their homes as cities and farms spread and human numbers soar.
Last week, the idea that Covid-19 was not due to natural disturbances but was the result of a laboratory leak was resurrected after vague remarks were made by George Gao, a leading Chinese scientist. Most western experts dispute this idea, however. The virus was natural in origin, they insist. It is crucial we face up to the implications of this assertion. Future pandemics will continue to emerge from the constant habitat disruptions we impose on the planet and we will never be safe until we realise that fact.
Claiming the pandemic was due to a one-off laboratory mistake – an assertion often influenced by political considerations – is to fail to face up to the fact that human-induced ecological destruction is the real risk. It is unclear when we will learn this lesson. In the meantime, we need to unravel the failures that blighted our past pandemic responses. Only then will we have a hope of avoiding the worst consequences of the next pandemic and a repeat of the Covid-19 nightmare from which we have only just emerged.
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