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Evidence grows that politicians missed many chances to protect us from COVID-19

US intelligence warned of the new disease last November. The British government failed to follow its own advice. The hindsight defence won’t do.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 April 2020, 11.53am
Don't bother me with pandemics
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Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

What is the point of analysing the origins of the COVID-19 crisis while we are still struggling to survive it? Isn’t it far better to concentrate on the present and how to move on? There is a strong counter argument to that: if there has been incompetence or, worse, the failure of a whole political system to cope despite of numerous warnings, then that risks continuing into the future. There certainly do have to be rigorous enquiries into what went wrong at a later stage but there must also be some rapid learning now.

Three weeks ago I highlighted that other countries had reacted to the looming pandemic far earlier than the UK: Taiwan started to check passengers arriving from Wuhan even before the end of December. Also, I also asked why the UK’s security and intelligence agencies had not picked up on the threat.

Standing back still further, one key issue about the origins of COVID-19 is when the virus mutated into a variant that could cause a disease in humans. Did the mutation happen in its original animal host before the virus ‘jumped’ to humans, or did it jump in a benign form and then mutate within human bodies? If it was the latter, then even if the virus jumps from animal to human again, it is unlikely that we will see further COVID-19 outbreaks: it is unlikely that a newly jumped virus would repeat the specific sequence of mutations in humans that have made it dangerous to us. If it was the former, then future animal-to-human jumps could lead to outbreaks of human disease, with uncertain and perhaps even more lethal consequences.

A different line of research is throwing some light on when the jump occurred: it suggests a period between mid-September and early December last year, though the scientist involved are very cautious about their conclusions.

Nevertheless, this relates to the politics of how the disease has been handled: what did intelligence agencies know, did they communicate it to politicians and, if so, did the politicians act on it?

In a tortuous response to criticisms this week the British government said that the health secretary, Matt Hancock, was alerted to COVID-19 on 3 January, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson was still on his Caribbean holiday. Hancock then got written advice from the “UK Health Security Team” and brought it to Johnson’s attention on 7 January when the prime minister had got back from his ten-day break.

The citation of the Health Security Team is itself a bit of a surprise as the government’s rebuttal appears to be the only time this body has ever been mentioned online. Whatever its role, the first meeting of an emergency COBRA committee specifically on COVID-19 was not until 24 January, and Johnson did not attend it.

By that time US intelligence had been aware of the new disease for over two months, according to The Times of Israel. It reports that intelligence officials were aware of the outbreak in the second week of November and informed the Trump administration, “which did not deem it of interest”. They then informed their NATO allies and Israel, also in November; their Israeli counterparts passed the message on to decision makers and their health ministry.

The riposte to all this is that “hindsight’s a wonderful thing”, but as I pointed out three weeks ago, there were plentiful warnings of the risk of a pandemic, not least in the 2018 UK biological security strategy, so much so that it was considered a ‘Tier One’ security risk, the highest.

Indeed, two years earlier, a major planning exercise had assumed a new and dangerous flu pandemic. Afterwards, the NHS England board was told that in October 2016 “NHS England prepared for and participated in Exercise Cygnus, a three-day exercise looking at the impact of a pandemic influenza outbreak, and the significant impacts on health delivery a widespread pandemic in the UK would trigger”. Exercise Cygnus showed that NHS resources would be critically overstretched in such a pandemic, but repeated attempts to have the full results published have so far failed.

To make matters worse, as recently as last year the annual National Risk Assessment specifically dealt with the risk of a flu-type pandemic and urged the government to prepare fully. As The Guardian reported: “The recommendations within it included the need to stockpile PPE (personal protective equipment), organise advanced purchase agreements for other essential kit, establish procedures for disease surveillance and contact tracing, and draw up plans to manage a surge in excess deaths.”

If we put this together, we now know that:

  • The risk of a flu-type pandemic has been known for a long time and most recently expressed in the 2018 UK biological security strategy.
  • Exercise Cygnus in 2016 showed that the UK was not prepared for such a pandemic.
  • Western intelligence agencies were alerted to developments in Wuhan in November last year.
  • Taiwan was already checking visitors from Wuhan in late December.
  • The UK health secretary was not even briefed until early January.
  • The first COBRA meeting specifically on COVID-19 was not until 24 January and Johnson did not attend.

Yes, governments can fall back on the hindsight defence, but there was plenty of foresight and foreknowledge as well, and people are now dying in their thousands. Furthermore, given the catalogue of delays, changed stories and obfuscations, a lot more foresight now is hardly too much to ask for.

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Ryerson University’s Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration and openDemocracy have teamed up to host this free live discussion on 15 April at 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Ana Beduschi Associate professor of law, University of Exeter

Hilary Evans Cameron Assistant professor, faculty of law, Ryerson University

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