Pandemic plans ‘should be free of political interference’

Academics propose a new independent body be set up to prepare for future pandemics.

Pandemic plans ‘should be free of political interference’ Getty Images

Planning for future pandemics should be handed over to the NHS and be “free from political interference”, academics have suggested.

Researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University, the Cass Business School in London, Nottingham University and Vlerick Business School in Belgium also suggested early warnings of the threat of Covid-19 had been missed.

They said the UK Government’s department of health “has been found wanting” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As a result it said workers are facing “unprecedented” risks on a daily basis “due to the inadequacy of their government’s approach to preparation”.

They propose a new body be set up, independent of government, similar to the way the Bank of England provides financial regulation.

“The stability of the UK’s financial system is based on the Bank of England remaining free from day-to-day political influence, having specific statutory responsibilities for regulation across multiple domains,” the paper said.

“It is time that national emergency preparedness, resilience, and response to transboundary risks follows suit via a public body with governance arrangements similar to those of the Bank of England.

“This public body would be enshrined in law, with the NHS pandemic preparedness and resilience responsibilities falling under its umbrella.”

The researchers suggested “independent responsibility for national future preparedness should be handed to the NHS free from political interference”.

They complained of a “lack of urgency by the UK Government and its agencies to ramp up their preparedness and systemic resilience in the face of early mounting evidence and warnings from mid-January” following events in China.

While they said the UK had carried out preparedness tests for possible pandemics, such as Exercise Cygnus, the report, published in Journal of Risk Research, alleged that the findings of these “were clearly never acted upon in a meaningful way”.

Meanwhile the “mild” consequences of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in the UK in 2009 meant the resilience of response plans was not thoroughly tested.

If this had not been the case, “the need for stockpiling of PPE and ventilators to develop redundancy would have been taken more seriously”, the academics said.

They added: “It is perhaps no coincidence that countries such as South Korea, which learned concrete lessons from its severe experience of Sars in 2002–2003, have been better at both anticipating and containing Covid-19.”

While the UK Government, facing a potential shortage of ventilators, appealed to companies to develop new medical devices, the researchers insisted: “The harsh reality today indicates that planning and preparedness will always trump technological reaction and adaptation.”

They added that “a reliance on a reactionary approach to any crisis, not least a transboundary one, will be sub-optimal”.

The paper said: “There can be no substitute for actionable and feasible emergency preparedness and resilience plans, devoid of short-term politicisation.

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re a national health provider or a Texan supermarket chain.

“If you don’t invest in developing resilience through financial resources and strategic direction, your likelihood of success is reduced. To paraphrase the Chinese proverb, without rice, even the cleverest cannot cook.”

Lead researcher Dr Cormac Bryce, of Cass Business School, said: “The warnings to prepare were there for those willing to look and act for years.”

Dr Patrick Ring, reader in financial services at Glasgow Caledonian University and one of the authors of the paper, said: “The risks employees are expected to face as they return to work are unprecedented and should never be repeated.”

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