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Government Planned To Let A Pandemic Spread Like "Wildfire"

Jeremy Hunt (alamy)

3 min read

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has told the Covid inquiry there was a shared “assumption” across Western Europe that the only way to deal with a future pandemic was to let it rip through the population like “wildfire”.

Hunt, who is now Chancellor, gave evidence to today's hearing exploring the government's response to Covid-19, with particular focus on his time as health secretary between 2012-2018, the longest in history.

Senior politicians including former prime minister David Cameron, ex-chancellor George Osborne and the current deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden have already given evidence.

Hunt told Hugo Keith KC, counsel to the inquiry, that government preparation for a future pandemic rested on a deadly virus being an influenza virus, echoing the concern raised by Cameron on Monday. He added there was group think in government that politicians would be helpless in stopping the virus spreading like wildfire across the population.

“There were no questions at any stage of how do we stop it getting to the stage of 200,000-400,000 fatalities," he said. 

“It was an assumption that if it were pandemic flu it would spread, using laymen’s terms, like wildfire and you pretty much couldn’t stop it.”

“What we did not ask is: Is it pandemic flu that we are only likely to be hit by? Could there be something [with] MERS like characteristics?

“We did not ask what could we do to stop it getting to that point where 200,000-400,000 have died.”

Hunt said his department should have given more thought to how different types of pandemics could have emerged.

He added there was little agreed for testing and isolation which had been thoroughly done by countries such as Taiwan and South Korea. It meant they had some of the most effective ways of dealing with the virus.

Former prime minister David Cameron also said it was a mistake the UK did not look at a “range of pandemics” prior to the emergence of coronavirus.

“Many of the reports don’t mention potential asymptomatic transmission and so when you think what would be different if more time had been spent on a high infectious asymptomatic pandemic, different recommendations would have been made about what was necessary to prevent that,” he told the hearing earlier this week. 

The former prime minister said it was “very hard to answer” why more questions were not asked about the likelihood of pandemics caused by other types of highly-transmissible diseases. 

Despite saying he had wanted to avoid “group-think” in government on this issue, Cameron said that as a system, they had focused on the “well-known risks” of pandemic influenza so had concentrated resources on that particular eventuality. 

Earlier today Oliver Dowden, who served as culture secretary between February 2020 and September 2021, said Whitehall "paused” potential planning for a pandemic in 2019 as the civil service geared up for a no-deal Brexit.

However, Dowden, the current Deputy Prime Minister, believed the work made the country “match-fit” and improved the country’s ability to plan for emergencies.

He was shown a document which was sent by David Liddington, former lord high chancellor, which claimed a “significant majority of the pandemic influenza” had been suspended.

Dowden defended the decision after the Government was being given regular ”apocryphal warnings” of a no-deal Brexit.

“It was the case at that time that no deal was the default position. It is worth remembering the kind of frankly apocryphal warnings that were being delivered about the consequences of no deal,” he told the panel.

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