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Tests showed UK was poorly prepared for pandemic, says former Government adviser

Professor Sir Ian Boyd, of the University of St Andrews, said the coronavirus outbreak should act as a ‘wake-up call’.

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In a piece for research journal Nature, Sir Ian Boyd wrote that some of the steps laid out to counter pandemics during planning sessions had not been enacted in response to Covid-19 (Ben Birchall/PA)

In a piece for research journal Nature, Sir Ian Boyd wrote that some of the steps laid out to counter pandemics during planning sessions had not been enacted in response to Covid-19 (Ben Birchall/PA)

In a piece for research journal Nature, Sir Ian Boyd wrote that some of the steps laid out to counter pandemics during planning sessions had not been enacted in response to Covid-19 (Ben Birchall/PA)

A former Government adviser has said the Covid-19 outbreak should be a wake-up call to the UK, claiming previous tests proved it was “poorly prepared” for a pandemic.

Professor Sir Ian Boyd, the former chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 2012 to 2019, said resilience should be built into the UK on a wide scale to cope with an outbreak of this magnitude – from national Government to individual household level.

Sir Ian, who now works at the University of St Andrews, said mitigation measures must be put in place to counter the issues being seen in the current pandemic.

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The professor worked at Defra between 2012 and 2019 (University of St Andrews/PA)

The professor worked at Defra between 2012 and 2019 (University of St Andrews/PA)

The professor worked at Defra between 2012 and 2019 (University of St Andrews/PA)

He told the PA news agency: “This country should understand better where its real vulnerabilities lie and make sure that those vulnerabilities are catered for by, for example, stockpiling certain critical materials.

“We should have certain rules in place that for critical materials we need so many weeks or months of supply to be stocked within the country and at the moment we do not do anything like that.

“The business as usual we’ve had in the past cannot be the business as usual we see in the future.”

Sir Ian claimed a similar crisis “will happen again” and it is important lessons are learned from this one.

He said: “People should not come to the end of this thinking ‘this will never happen again’.

“That is not true, it will happen again. When? No-one can tell. From where? Nobody can tell – but it will happen.”

Nobody likes living under a fortress mentalitySir Ian Boyd

In a piece for research journal Nature, Sir Ian wrote that some of the steps laid out to counter pandemics during planning sessions had not been enacted in response to Covid-19.

He wrote: “We learnt what would help but did not necessarily implement those lessons.

“The assessment, in many sectors of Government, was that the resulting medicine was so strong that it would be spat out.

“Nobody likes living under a fortress mentality.”

The professor said simulated exercises – one of which was an influenza pandemic that killed 200,000 people – showed the UK to be “poorly prepared”.

He claimed planning exercises only went as far as identifying the “stresses” in the country, as well as setting up a command and control structure, which he said was down to the public, and by extension Government officials, regarding a pandemic as a “low threat”.

Sir Ian added: “We probably should have been spending a lot more of our money on mitigation processes and changing the structure of Government in order to make sure that when these things happen then we’re managing these much better than we are able to do at the moment.”

Speaking after the publication of the article, Sir Ian said now is not the time for criticism of the Government response, saying those responding to the crisis were doing an “extraordinarily good job”.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “The coronavirus outbreak calls for decisive action, at home and abroad, and the UK is one of the most prepared countries in the world for pandemics.

“As the public would expect, we regularly test our pandemic plans and what we learned from previous exercises has helped us to rapidly respond to Covid-19.

“We are delivering a science-led action plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate the outbreak and have acted swiftly to contain and slow the spread of the virus significantly to save lives and support our NHS.”

PA