There are two opportunities for the UK to use the COVID-19 crisis to be more resilient to future disasters. Firstly to improve domestic emergency preparedness by incentivising emergency-relevant industries to operate in the UK and by sustaining COVID-19 response capacity developed during this crisis; and secondly to invest in pandemic disease prevention abroad, capitalising on our world-leading international development and tertiary education sectors.
Britain was largely unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. The government was not able to source adequate supplies early on in the pandemic including ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE). The public health system was unable to keep track of the disease as it spread through communities, and as a result the UK has some of the worst COVID-19 mortality figures in the world. However, we did do some things well. The national capacity for genome sequencing allowed rapid identification of mutant strains, whilst the pharmaceutical industry and academic centres of excellence were able to develop vaccines, and bring them to market, in record time.
This teaches us that where there is existing technical or industrial capacity, it can be leveraged for disaster response. Furthermore this ability to leverage existing capacity is incredibly valuable, saving thousands of lives and millions of pounds of economic damage. With this in mind I think this is an ideal time for the government to incentivise building national capacity in emergency-relevant industries. For example, factories for manufacturing medical equipment or PPE might usually be located in Asia because of the lower cost of business, but it is in the nation’s interests to move these industries back to the UK, with financial incentives, because of the value of these industries in a time of crisis. This is preferable to simply stockpiling emergency supplies because the industries are more likely to remain for the long-term, and provide economic benefits in their own right such as employment for British people, whereas stockpiles can easily be left to rot without continued investment (which does not provide any ancillary benefits). It is less likely that continued investment in emergency stockpiles will persist across multiple government regimes, as the threat of pandemics fade in the public memory, but the economic incentives granted to emergency-relevant manufacturing industries are more likely to be maintained, so we can respond to the next emergency.
During the course of the pandemic more capacity has been generated in valuable areas such as rapid testing for disease, and information sharing between government bodies and local councils. This capacity should be maintained and could also be used in other productive ways. For example the networks that have been set up between councils, the NHS and the emergency services could be used to respond to other public health problems, but also environmental disasters or terrorist attacks. It would be a shame for the experience gained and money invested during this crisis to go to waste once the pandemic is over.
Preparedness is only one half of pandemic defence – the other half is prevention. There is an inevitability to pandemics. Wild animals host a great variety of viruses, most of which are harmless, but these viruses are constantly mutating and mixing. The boundless diversity and mutating nature of viruses in the wild make the emergence of pandemics inevitable. The trick is to be ready when they first transfer to humans so that they can be contained, and to monitor them in animals so that we can see them coming.
Livestock are often the intermediate hosts of pandemic diseases, for example domestic poultry for bird ‘flu and domestic pigs for swine ‘flu. Sanitary livestock agriculture practices can reduce the risk of pandemic diseases spreading through livestock to humans, and animal disease testing allows for the early detection of pandemic threats. In the UK we have a well-managed livestock sector and top-notch veterinary practice and testing facilities, which makes it very unlikely that the next pandemic virus will emerge here. But as we have seen, pandemic diseases are not constrained by national borders. It is in the UK’s interest to help improve the quality of livestock agriculture, the animal-source foods supply chain, and veterinary services in other countries for our own national security.
The UK has one of the world’s preeminent international development organisations. We should use this expertise to effectively, and sustainably, invest money to improve developing countries in ways that will prevent pandemic disease emergence. Many of these investments will have multiple benefits. For example, not only will animal disease testing centres alert us to potential pandemic threats, they will also help prevent outbreaks of animal diseases that can have severe impacts on agricultural productivity. Primary health facilities will detect and prevent the spread of pandemic disease, but will also reduce maternal mortality and preventable diseases, and improve productivity.
The UK is also a world leader in education. Laboratories are useless without adequately trained staff, and veterinary services can only improve if there are well-trained veterinarians to do the work. We should embrace this opportunity to train up a new generation of virologists, veterinary epidemiologists, nurses, doctors, human epidemiologists, health administrators and veterinarians from particularly at-risk nations. Investment in this human capital, as well as the physical facilities mentioned above, will help keep the world safe from the next pandemic threat.
In conclusion, we are presented with an opportunity to improve the UK’s preparedness for pandemic threats by ensuring that the investments we have made in the COVID-19 response can transition to sustainable and long term states that will leave us better prepared for the next crisis, while also providing benefits in other spheres. COVID-19 has also identified weaknesses in the UK’s ability to deal with certain threats. These weaknesses should be addressed by increasing the national capacity, through incentives that bring emergency-relevant industries back to the UK. Alongside preparedness we should help prevent the emergence of the next global pandemic by investing in human capital and physical facilities in healthcare, agriculture and veterinary services in at-risk countries, using our world-leading education and international development capabilities.