Covid 2.0: Another pandemic is an 'inevitability', expert claims

Covid 2.0 warning: Another pandemic is an ‘inevitability’, expert claims as David Cameron and George Osborne are called to give evidence to Inquiry

  • The stark warning came as they tore into the UK’s ‘inadequate’ preparedness 
  • READ MORE: Restrictions caused ‘profound loneliness, pain and anguish’ 

Professor David Alexander, an expert on disasters and risk management based at University College London, told the probe that history dictated a new coronavirus would trigger another world health crisis in the future

Another pandemic is an ‘inevitability’, experts told the Covid Inquiry today. 

The stark warning came as they tore into the UK’s ‘inadequate’ preparedness and argued the Government was not keeping the public sufficiently safe.

Professor David Alexander, an expert on disasters and risk management based at University College London, told the probe that history dictated a new coronavirus would trigger another world health crisis in the future.

He said he was ‘slightly surprised’ the Government had only deemed it a ‘realistic possibility’. 

Professor Alexander told the inquiry: ‘I am slightly surprised that the government said that another novel pandemic remains a “realistic possibility”. 

‘I would have thought a better way of describing it is as an “inevitability” given them that if we look at history, pandemics have been apparent throughout recorded human history.’

Seven coronaviruses have been found to infect humans so far.

This includes SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS), both of which have triggered significant epidemics in the 21st century.

Addressing the probe, Professor Alexander added: ‘I think the bottom line of all of this is: do you think the British government within the limits of its competency keeps the public safe?

‘I feel my answer to that is no or not sufficiently.’

Hugo Keith KC, head lawyer for the inquiry, asked Professor Alexander if he thought that the current structures in place ‘do not keep us safe or do not keep us as safe as you would wish and everybody would sensibly wish us to be’.

Pandemic gurus Sir Chris Whitty (left) and Sir Patrick Vallance (right) who became household names during the Covid pandemic are due to appear before the Covid Inquiry next week 

READ MORE: Make room for Dr Doom and Prof Gloom! Whitty and Valance will be hauled in front of Covid Inquiry next week – as well as David Cameron, George Osborne and Jeremy Hunt

Professor Alexander replied: ‘We are of course all responsible for our own safety.

‘But Government obviously has an essential, fundamental and central role in providing safety to its population and I think it could do more and better in that.’

He said the UK was ‘quite simply lucky’ that it did not have to simultaneously deal with another major event such as serious and widespread flooding during the pandemic as this would have ‘even further complicated the response required’.

Bruce Mann, a former civil servant in the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office, heavily criticised a Government document created post-Covid into the UK’s resilience.

Mr Mann said the document was ‘not a strategy’.

He said: ‘I was advertised as a strategy. [But] it does not set out: this is where we’d like to get to, this is how we know we’ll get there, and this is the structure on the way.

‘There’s a lot of very good ideas in there, but they are not brought together into a single unifying roadmap, which everybody in the responder community can use.

‘And finally, it is almost silent on resourcing.’

He said even if all the commitments to strengthen the frameworks, systems and capabilities which underpin the country’s resilience to all civil contingencies risks were carried out by 2030 as stated, the UK would not ‘be in a better place to handle catastrophic emergencies’.

Both Mr Mann and Professor Alexander said they wanted a ‘wholesale radical rewriting’ of the strategic approach.

It comes as ex-Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne have been called to give evidence to the inquiry.

Former PM David Cameron (left) and ex-chancellor George Osborne (right) are likely to be grilled by the Covid Inquiry about how their austerity policies towards public spending could have left the UK unprepared for Covid

The mind-boggling diagram, created by the Inquiry to reflect structures in 2019, links together more than 100 organisations involved in preparing the country for any future infectious threats. This includes the Cabinet Office, Department of Health and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) — a panel of leading experts who guided ministers through the pandemic 

Government data up to June 4 shows the number of Covid cases recorded since March 2020. As many as 70 witnesses will contribute to the first module on pandemic preparedness. Wednesday’s session will this afternoon hear from Dr Charlotte Hammer, an epidemiologist from Cambridge University and Professor Jimmy Whitworth, an infectious diseases expert from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Government data up to May 12 shows the number of deaths of people whose death certificate mentioned Covid as one of the causes, and seven-day rolling average. Baroness Hallett told the inquiry she intends to answer three key questions: was the UK properly prepared for the pandemic, was the response appropriate, and can lessons be learned for the future?

The pair are likely to be questioned on austerity measures and their potential impact on public services such as healthcare systems when they appear on consecutive days next week.

They are among a series of high-profile political figures expected to testify at the inquiry, which is currently examining whether the UK was prepared for the pandemic.

Mr Cameron, Prime Minister from 2010 until 2016, and Mr Osborne, who managed the nation’s finances during the same period, are expected to give evidence under oath for around an hour each.

They will appear on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

Both men left politics altogether in summer 2016 after the UK voted for Brexit.

Current Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary for six years before the pandemic, and Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, the former Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office between 2018 and 2019, are expected to give evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday.

Lawyers for the bereaved and frontline workers have already suggested that austerity had an impact on the UK’s ability to withstand a pandemic.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty, and Sir Patrick Valance, senior experts who were regular fixtures during the televised Covid briefings, are due to appear before the inquiry on Thursday.

Will Boris Johnson be quizzed? Who else will be involved? And how long will it take? EVERYTHING you need to know about the Covid inquiry

Why was the inquiry set up?

There has been much criticism of the UK government’s handling of the pandemic, including the fact the country seemed to lack a thorough plan for dealing with such a major event.

Other criticisms levelled at the Government include allowing elderly people to be discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested, locking down too late in March 2020 and the failures of the multi-billion NHS test and trace.

Families of those who lost their loved ones to Covid campaigned for an independent inquiry into what happened.

Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was right that lessons are learned, announcing in May 2021 that an inquiry would be held.

Will Boris Johnson be quizzed? If so, when?

It’s not clear exactly when, or if, the former Prime Minister will be quizzed. No full list of witnesses has been published yet.

But given he was in charge of the Government for almost the entirety of the pandemic, his insights will prove central to understanding several aspects of the nation’s response.

If called forward as a witness, he would be hauled in front of the committee to give evidence.

What topics will the inquiry cover?

There are currently six broad topics, called modules, that will be considered by the inquiry.

Module 1 will examine the resilience and preparedness of the UK for a coronavirus pandemic.

Module 2 will examine decisions taken by Mr Johnson and his then team of ministers, as advised by the civil service, senior political, scientific and medical advisers, and relevant committees.

The decisions taken by those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also be examined.

Module 3 will investigate the impact of Covid on healthcare systems, including on patients, hospitals and other healthcare workers and staff.

This will include the controversial use of Do Not Attempt Resuscitation notices during the pandemic.

Module 4 meanwhile will assess Covid vaccines and therapeutics. 

It will consider and make recommendations on a range of issues relating to the development of Covid vaccines and the implementation of the vaccine rollout programme in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Modules 5 and 6 will open later this year, investigating government procurement and the care sector. 

Who is in charge of the inquiry?

Baroness Heather Hallett is in the charge of the wide-reaching inquiry. And she’s no stranger to taking charge of high profile investigations.

The 72-year-old ex-Court of Appeal judge was entrusted by Mr Johnson with chairing the long-awaited public probe into the coronavirus crisis.

Her handling of the inquiry will be subject to ferocious scrutiny.

Until Baroness Hallett was asked to stand aside, she was acting as the coroner in the inquest of Dawn Sturgess, the 44-year-old British woman who died in July 2018 after coming into contact with the nerve agent Novichok.

She previously acted as the coroner for the inquests into the deaths of the 52 victims of the July 7, 2005 London bombings.

She also chaired the Iraq Fatalities Investigations, as well as the 2014 Hallett Review of the administrative scheme to deal with ‘on the runs’ in Northern Ireland.

Baroness Hallett, a married mother-of-two, was nominated for a life peerage in 2019 as part of Theresa May’s resignation honours.

How long will it take?

When he launched the terms of the inquiry in May 2021, Mr Johnson said he hoped it could be completed in a ‘reasonable timescale’.

But, realistically, it could take years.

It has no formal deadline but is due to hold hearings across the UK until at least 2025. 

Interim reports are scheduled to be published before public hearings conclude by summer 2026.

The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war began in 2009 but the final, damning document wasn’t released until 2016.

Meanwhile, the Bloody Sunday inquiry took about a decade.

Should a similar timescale be repeated for the Covid inquiry, it would take the sting out of any criticism of any Tory Government failings.

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