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Sunday, 23 June 2024
Labour calls for audit of UK’s preparedness for next pandemic
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary.

Shadow health secretary attacks Tory handling of crisis and calls for regular war-gaming of future outbreaks Labour 

Ministers must start war-gaming the next pandemic and their plans should be independently audited to prove the UK is prepared for global health threats to come, Labour’s Jon Ashworth has said.

The shadow health secretary will give a speech on Tuesday attempting to refocus the blame for the catastrophic UK death toll on government failings, after polls showed support for Boris Johnson surging on the back of the the vaccine programme.

Ashworth said Labour would introduce statutory duties to plan, audit and invest in pandemic response, alongside obligatory training for ministers in “germ-gaming”, imitating how the military prepares for conflict scenarios.

Speaking to the Guardian, Ashworth said Labour needed to highlight not only that the UK was “ill-prepared and ignored the warnings” about the Covid-19 pandemic but that there was more it could be doing now to prepare for future threats.

“We have been warned repeatedly this is the era of pandemics,” he said. “When you look at what is happening to the world with the destruction of biodiversity and environmental degradation, we are creating the conditions for pathogens to jump from animals for humans because we are destroying their habitats.

“We’ve seen Ebola emerge from bats, Nipah fever, which has a 70% death rate, from fruit bats, we’ve seen Zika emerge from mosquitos, and three coronavirus pandemics – Sars, Mers and Cov-2. The warnings were there.”

Ashworth said the UK having the worst death toll in Europe and one of the worst economic crises was preventable. “When you look at history – the fundamentals don’t change. With Spanish flu there were masks, schools closed and mass gatherings were banned. These are age-old techniques.

But Boris Johnson did not want to face up to the reality. He was attending Twickenham, shaking people by the hand, talking about taking it on the chin, sending it packing in 12 weeks. We should not be in that situation again, where a prime minister is so complacent … which is why ministers should be required to do these germ-gaming exercises.”

In his speech at the Institute for Public Policy Research, Ashworth will say the NHS was undermined by a decade of complacency and cuts, with 17,000 fewer NHS beds than in 2010 and with a health workforce smaller than those of other advanced economies.

He will say the government should submit itself to a health resilience audit, for which ministers must answer, similar to how the Office for Budget Responsibility looks at economic policy.

Labour in government would run regular germ-gaming to prepare for future pandemics, and prioritise research and development investment into vaccines and therapeutics, he will say.

The speech will highlight the need to work on combating climate change and threats to biodiversity. Ashworth will say the risk of pandemics is rapidly increasing, with more than five new diseases emerging in people every year, and an estimated 800,000 viruses that could potentially infect humans.

He will say Johnson’s leadership “ignored the warnings and weakened our defences … Given we know the scale of the risks, it would be unforgivable to be on the back foot again. Governments rightly invest in defence planning. Practising for pandemics should be no different.”

source: Jessica Elgot