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United Kingdom: Future Pandemics

Volume 826: debated on Monday 16 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the United Kingdom’s readiness for any future pandemics.

My Lords, we cannot perfectly predict the characteristics of a new pandemic pathogen, and therefore pandemic preparedness is an area kept under review. The UK has flexible and well-tested pandemic response capabilities. We are continuously enhancing our preparedness using the latest scientific information, lessons learned from exercises and our response to emergencies, including Covid-19. The UK Health Security Agency maintains constant vigilance on emerging infectious disease threats. This includes co-operating globally to detect and counter future pandemics.

My Lords, Dame Kate Bingham, former chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, told the health and science committees in the other place that many of the initiatives set up by the taskforce have been dismantled, that key recommendations have not been acted on, and that the clinical research environment has deteriorated. Does the Minister acknowledge the pressing need to go further than the Government’s targeted spend on research and development, and can he say why the Government have been so reluctant to act on the taskforce’s conclusions from the last pandemic?

Our approach to this has been led by the science. As the House is aware, we set up the UK Health Security Agency precisely to make sure that we have a team of experts in place ready to answer what is needed, in any eventuality. We also set up the 100 Days Mission to make sure that we have the ability to deploy effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines within 100 days, which is pretty good.

My Lords, could the Minister report to the House what progress is being made in giving the World Health Organization better access to new virus discoveries, and setting up schemes that will enable the better distribution of vaccines at an earlier stage in any further pandemic?

We have deployed our sequencing capability to the benefit of the whole world. Some 50% of the variants were discovered on these shores using our capability, and we were the first to announce them to make sure that the whole world could benefit. We have also been leading on vaccine distribution, so we have a good story to tell.

Will the Minister reassure the British people that, when the report of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hallett, and her excellent commission is finally published, they will have looked carefully at the efficiency and effectiveness of lockdowns and other restrictions that came into place after March 2020? At the moment, they do not appear to be looking at this, but the British people deserve an answer on whether they worked.

They will absolutely look at the use of lockdowns. The House will see that, even during Covid itself, we evolved our approach significantly, as we learned more about some of the wider consequences. We were far more hesitant in the case of omicron not to lock down, quite rightly, whereas other countries went ahead. That proved that our judgment was correct and we will learn those lessons going forward.

My Lords, for many people, the most effective tools for contact tracing during the pandemic were messaging services such as WhatsApp, as family and friends kept each other informed about test results and infections. But you were often left in the absurd position of someone calling from the official track and trace system about a contact who had let you know about their infection several days earlier—including, sometimes, people who lived in your own home. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government’s plans for future pandemics will look at how best to work with these local, informal, peer-to-peer networks, rather than think that the solution always lies in centralised, expensive systems?

I agree. There are many examples of where centrally run initiatives did not work so well, test and trace being one. That is what the inquiry is all about. There are many examples of things that worked very well, such as our vaccine preparation and our creating the first test for Covid, through the PCR process. There are many lessons to learn, including from many of these centrally run initiatives.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether His Majesty’s Government have yet put in place a revised system to purchase PPE during a pandemic?

PPE is an example of where we all agree that we could have done better, to say the least. At this stage, I should declare an interest in that I set up a Covid testing company—not PPE—which never supplied the Government. I want to be clear about that, so that the House is fully aware of it in terms of my replies, now we are talking about PPE and related areas. Yes, we can learn a lot about PPE. At the same time, we did buy 35 billion items, 97% of which worked very well. It is important that we keep all this in context; we got 97% of things right.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware that it took repeated FoI requests from an NHS doctor to get the Government in 2021 to reveal that they had carried out Exercise Alice in 2016, which was designed to recognise the challenges should a coronavirus hit our shores. The report, redacted when published, revealed shortages of PPE, no plans for pandemic-related travel restrictions, and a failure to have a working contact-tracing system—all of which we had to improvise when it actually happened. Is the department carrying out similar exercises? Is it producing solutions, not just identifying problems? Will the Government publish these reports, so that the public can see what needs to be done to prepare this country?

As previously mentioned, there were many things that we did not get right. The whole reason that we set up the UK Health Security Agency was because we were not happy with the response in some areas. That agency was set up with a team of experts to make sure that, learning from those lessons, we are properly prepared for all eventualities next time around. There are lessons to learn but, as the Covid inquiry will show, there were also many things that we did right. It is important that we have that balance.

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right that we led the world in sequencing the genomes of Covid-19, particularly identifying the variants worldwide. But since we have now closed down many of our sequencing facilities, how can we surveil internationally, particularly for emerging variants? For example, XBB1.5 is now emerging as the variant causing most of the infection, probably including in England. What is our surveillance mechanism for sequencing?

Given the detailed nature of the question on sequencing, it probably deserves a detailed response. I will happily write on that. The 100 Days Mission—to deploy effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines within 100 days—is all about having UKHSA ensure that we have a preserved capability to act when we need to.

My Lords, in any future global health emergency, legitimate concerns—such as effects on mental health, education, aspects of healthcare, and the psychological side-effects of terrifying people into self-isolation—about measures must not be silenced. They will be extensively aired anyway, in online echo chambers, and amplified, typically with much ignorance of the facts and inadequate nuance. Will the Government ensure that concerns are debated in public and by senior leaders in society and government?

I agree with my noble friend that some of the lessons learned from all this are around consequences of lockdown that we had not quite imagined. Clearly, the impacts on mental health are impacting us to this day. We need to make sure that we are learning all those lessons, so that we do not walk into situations in the future where we put in lockdowns without fully considering the impact on the whole of society, including the mental health consequences. That is what the inquiry is about.

My Lords, the Minister said in his earlier response that the Government were flexible and well tested, had learned the lessons of the pandemic and were using the experience of response to emergencies. Can he explain why there are over 9,000 patients currently in hospital with Covid, over half of whom have acquired it in hospital? Could he ask the Secretary of State to reinstate the mask mandate in hospital for these very vulnerable patients?

I know that the use of masks in hospital is being debated as we speak, to make sure that we are prepared for any new eventuality. As we are aware, 9,000 beds being taken up by Covid is a response to our seeing more waves: this is something that we see each time. Thankfully, due to the vaccines and our treatments, the death rate from those waves is very much reduced, but there is still a big impact. The House is aware of the impact that it is having on us all right now: 9,000 is a big number.