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Pandemic Preparedness

Volume 837: debated on Monday 15 April 2024


Asked by

The Government continue to plan and prepare for a range of pandemic and emerging infectious disease scenarios. These include respiratory diseases such as flu and diseases spread by contact, vector-borne or through oral transmission. This built on lessons learned through Covid-19. We are working with partners to strengthen our pandemic preparedness and to build a flexible and scalable response that can be adapted to any threat that the health and social care system faces.

My Lords, that is not very reassuring. With all due respect to my noble and learned friend Lady Hallett, the remit that she has been handed is too wide, too deep, too long and too expensive, not least due to the lawyers. It seems to be looking backwards rather than forwards. We do not need to know who said what to whom in the middle of the night a few years ago; we need to know whether we have innovative vaccine labs, ventilators, the right medical staff, preparedness with PPE, supply lines and so on. I suggest to the Minister that either my noble and learned friend’s remit be cut down or he set up a quick and short inquiry, looking forward to the next pandemic, which could be with us within months. Sweden managed its inquiry in two years. This one will take too long.

I totally agree with the noble Baroness. What I am interested in as a Health Minister is what lessons we can learn so that we are better prepared next time round. My understanding is that stage 1 is going to be reported in early summer, and that should give us some of those findings. I completely agree that that is what really matters.

My Lords, an international pandemic treaty and government policies from 2021 are currently being negotiated by the World Health Assembly, aimed at preparing for the next global health emergency and preventing a repeat of what South Africa called vaccine apartheid, where countries had vastly unequal access to vaccines and drugs. Next month, World Health Organization member states are expected to vote on the final text. Where do we stand on the key issue of pathogen access and benefit sharing? Do we stand on the side of the group for equity or with those rich countries that have suggested that such an approach would undermine their sovereignty?

I think our record in this speaks for itself. I am very proud of the action that we took as a Government to make sure that the AstraZeneca vaccine was prepared quickly, put in arms quickly and offered all around the world on a not-for-profit basis very quickly. Action speaks louder than words, and that is something that we are well-prepared on. I have been involved in some of the conversations about world pandemic preparedness. There is action that we think we can take collectively as a world, but what we are not prepared to see happen is our sovereignty—the management of our health services—being ceded to other countries.

My Lords, procurement during the pandemic has left a bitter taste in the country. While many good citizens stepped up in the public interest, there are legitimate concerns that others were profiteering at that difficult time. Can the Minister give a firm commitment there would be no VIP fast lane if there were another pandemic? Are the Government putting in place a much more transparent emergency procurement system as part of their preparedness planning?

I think it is understood and accepted that the VIP fast lane was not a good way of going ahead; lessons have definitely been learned. At the same time, I refer to the fact that 97% of all procurement fit the bill and worked very well. Yes, 3% did not and lessons need to be worked on, but we should remember that, in those extraordinary times, 97% was pretty good.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister has talked about lessons learned. Is not one lesson that was learned the terrible impact that the lockdowns had on our economy and society, children’s mental health, cancer rates and so on? In future, can we make absolutely certain, before taking any drastic step like a lockdown, that we weigh up the costs and benefits of such a policy?

Absolutely. To respond to both this question and the earlier question from the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the other things I would like to see the inquiry look at are the lockdown and comparisons with countries such as Sweden, what lessons can be learned across the whole health system, the impact on the mental health of our children and a lot of the other areas that my noble friend mentioned.

My Lords, the WHO has identified Nipah virus as a priority candidate for the next pandemic. It belongs to the same group of viruses as the measles virus. Fortunately, Oxford University has developed a vaccine that went into human trial last week. The lesson therefore is that we should identify the organisms that are likely to cause pandemics and be prepared ahead of time with the vaccines; several other candidates have also been identified. For that to happen, we require a global conglomerate to focus on development of vaccines. Do the Government have any plans to establish one?

We definitely look to work closely with our colleagues, and I have spoken to my Health Minister counterparts on this. One of the lessons from the pandemic was that you also need to have your own capability. The work we have done on the100-day mission, and the strategic relationship we have entered into with Moderna—which can develop vaccines in as little as four to six weeks to answer some of those unknowns—is very powerful.

My Lords, it is now two years since the UK Health Security Agency replaced Public Health England. As we await the Science and Technology Committee’s report on the threat caused by zoonotic diseases such as Covid, avian flu and Ebola, can the Minister update the House on the progress the agency is making in building resilience in these areas? It reported last year on global work on developing pandemic-fighting tools but not on the nitty-gritty needed to tackle underlying problems still hampering us, such as tackling widespread health inequalities, building systems for vaccine resistance and raising public awareness of the threats we all face.

I thank the noble Baroness. The UKHSA has been working and there are four main areas we want to be responding on. First, there is the vaccine, and the 100-day mission is all about making sure that we have the vaccines quickly. We have 100 million vaccines prepositioned for flu and 250 million for other diseases. Secondly, there is the manufacturing scale-up. We have a fund in place so that we have UK domestic production capability to produce vaccines quickly. Thirdly, there is the stock of PPE, and, fourthly, there is the diagnostic capability. That is how the UK Health Security Agency is making sure we have all the bases covered.

My Lords, will the Minister turn again to the answer he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, about the international aspects of this? Does he not accept that throwing in the slightly abusive reference to the word sovereignty is simply a kind of “get out of jail” card to ensure that, next time round, again, equitable distribution across the world will not be achieved?

Excuse me, but I think we will find that Britain was a world leader in developing a vaccine and making it available all round the world on a not-for-profit basis. If any noble Lord can come up with examples where countries have done more than we have in this space, I would be delighted to hear them. I, for one, am proud of what we did.

The noble Baroness knows better than to shout at another Member when other Members before her are also trying to get in to ask a question.

My Lords, do the Government have a preprepared communications plan for the eventuality of another pandemic—which could be next week, next year or whatever—so that it is not made up on the hoof? We remember that, in 2016, there was a big exercise in London which was forgotten about when we got to the actual pandemic. Are those provisions being put in now and preparations being made?

That is all a part of what I referred to as having a toolkit for a flexible response. The problem always in these things is that you tend to fight the next war on what happened in the last one. We have to be careful in what we do and that we are not trying to fight the next pandemic on the last one, because inevitably it will be different. Having a flexible and scalable response, including communications, is vital.

My Lords, some years ago, when I was chairman of the Public Health Laboratory Service, we had 31 public health laboratories dotted around the country. Their role was to track and trace the sources of infections. We lost those in a review of the Public Health Laboratory Service, and I resigned as a result of that. What a loss that has been. What efforts are being made now to replace those laboratories which can do the track and trace that we desperately need?

As the noble Lord mentions, one of the key pillars is having diagnostic capability. The noble Lord will be aware that, for the sequencing of all the different Covid strands, it was the UK that they were sent to because our diagnostic and sequencing ability is second to none. I am assured that that capability still exists and, with that, our ability to scale up diagnostic testing very quickly.