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David Cameron Says It Was A "Mistake" Not To Prepare For Broader Range Of Pandemics

David Cameron gave evidence to the Covid Inquiry on Monday (UK Covid-19 Inquiry)

5 min read

Former prime minister David Cameron has told the Covid Inquiry it was a “mistake” for his government not to have prepared for a range of different types of pandemics, and instead placing a disproportionate focus on influenza.

Cameron has given evidence to the Covid Inquiry as part of the investigation into the government response to Covid-19, with particular focus on how the government during his time in Downing Street between 2010 and 2016 prepared for the “high risk” of a global pandemic.

A number of politicians and officials will give evidence this week, including DHSC Permanent Secretary Sir Chris Wormald, former minister Oliver Letwin, former chancellor George Osborne, current Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, and former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

The hearings coincide with renewed criticism over 'partygate', after video footage was published by the Sunday Mirror showing officials partying in the CCHQ during Covid-19 restrictions. 

“It was a mistake not to look more at the range of different types of pandemics,” Cameron said. 

“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.”

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. 

Cameron echoed concerns previously raised by former health secretary between 2012 and 2018 Jeremy Hunt, now chancellor, who told the British Medical Journal in 2021 that his decisions as health secretary had adversely affected the UK’s preparedness for the pandemic. 

“We did exhaustive pandemic preparations; we were lauded by Johns Hopkins University as being the second-best-prepared country in the world,” Hunt said.

“But we were sadly also part of a group-think that said that the primary way that you respond to a pandemic is the flu pandemic playbook (with a focus on areas like vaccination and boosting hospital capacity), rather than the methods that you would use for Sars and Mers (surveillance and containment, community testing, contact tracing and isolation, and stockpiling personal protective equipment, and ventilators).”

Hunt added that they had been “on the back foot from the start” on test and trace, dating back to when he was health secretary. 

Kate Blackwell KC, counsel for the inquiry, read out a statement from Oliver Letwin, former minister for Government Policy between 2010 and 2016, that said he had been told by the Cabinet Office in 2012 when he started the resilience review process that the threat of pandemics had already received a “large amount of attention”.

“I was informed by Cabinet Office officials when I initiated the resilience review process in 2012 that an unusually large amount of attention had already been focused on this particular threat because of its position in the National Risk Register,” Letwin wrote. 

“That as a result, the UK was particularly well prepared to deal with pandemic influenza, that the Department of Health was preparing to carry out a major exercise to test on national capabilities in the face of pandemic influenza, and that my time would therefore be better spent examining other whole risk risk Health System risks for which line departments might be much, much less well prepared.”

Letwin will appear in front of the Covid Inquiry on Tuesday, and George Osbourne, former chancellor under Cameron will be questioned on the same day. 

Cameron was also asked by Blackwell about his government’s austerity policies and how they might have negatively impacted the funding and state of the NHS – which was stretched to breaking point during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

British Medical Association (BMA) council chair Professor Philip Banfield told the Mirror there was “no doubt” patients were “put in harm’s way because of this historic under-staffing and under-resourcing".

"I have seen first-hand the damage wrought by years of austerity and a failure to prioritise the nation’s health,” he said.

"The UK was severely on the back foot when Covid took hold, and this proved disastrous for the doctors I represent and the millions who suffered at the hands of the virus."

However, Cameron defended austerity to the Inquiry, arguing that it had allowed the UK’s economy to be strengthened in advance of any potential crisis. 

“Our whole economic strategy was about safeguarding and strengthening the economy and the nation's finances so we could cope with whatever crisis it is next,” he said.

“And I think that's incredibly important because there's no resilience without financial fiscal resilience. And so, that was the line one of our plans for dealing with any expected crisis.”

He said that with any public health crisis, an economic and fiscal crisis would occur at the same time, justifying a policy of bringing down national debt as much as possible in advance of such crises.

Asked whether the government had made any plans on how to mitigate the economic impact of a pandemic on individuals and businesses, Cameron was unable to recall any specific plans, and instead highlighted that it was important to have "economic capacity" overall to deal with public health emergencies. 

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