Pandemics were a high-profile concern for decades, but we were unprepared. There are
many worse crises that we are still unprepared for. The COVID-19 pandemic presents a key
opportunity for the UK to prepare for these risks.
Prime Ministers, scientists and journalists warned about the risk of pandemics, but when
Coronavirus came, the UK was poorly prepared. Our well-respected pandemic plan was built
for a different style of disease. While Italy suffered, we denounced airport quarantines as too
difficult and didn’t start lockdown. Our vaccine delivery has been world-beating, but MPs
mocked Matt Hancock’s vaccine optimism as recently as October 2020.
There are many other crises that are in a similar box to pandemics. Oxford academic Toby
Ord puts human extinction at about 1 in 6 in the next 100 years. This is a lethal dice roll, a
cocktail of risks around climate change, nuclear war, biowarfare and Artificial Intelligence.
This may be all the warning we get.
We now have a unique opportunity to fix the mistakes we made around COVID-19: Our
pandemic planning made us overconfident. Instead, Decision-makers should feel
emotionally engaged and have a robust understanding of what we know and what we don’t.
Our initial response was underfunded and slow, with dire consequences. For catastrophic
risks, the time to spend is now. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Finally, in
the early days of COVID-19, we immediately discounted some of the best solutions. What
ideas are currently “too hard”, “too expensive” or “too silly”?
In conclusion, the UK has a unique opportunity to change its stance on existential risk. Let’s
admit that we have a problem and do something about it. Some countries have avoided
COVID-19, the UK can lead the world in avoiding something far worse.