Is the UK ready for the next pandemic?

But one year on from the anniversary of Britain’s first lockdown, at a time when many are reflecting upon what has been lost since the onset of this crisis, the threat of another pandemic remains high as ever – irrespective of the devastation wrought by coronavirus.

With more than 146,000 people now dead from Covid-19 in the UK, it seems unthinkable that this scale of mortality and suffering – driven by an unseen, silent killer – could return in our lifetime.

As globalisation, urbanisation and deforestation brings man and the dark side of nature into closer contact, the chances of infectious spillover continue to rise.

“We will see more outbreaks” in the years to come, warns Professor Sarah Gilbert, the scientist behind the Oxford vaccine.

Experts have told The Independent that now is the time to start preparing for the “next big one” and ensure future generations are better equipped to dealing with these outbreaks.

“My fear is that the perception and impressions, lessons people think they’ve learned during this  pandemic, will subside quite quickly,” says Professor Christopher Dye, a former director of strategy at the WHO. “After this experience goes away, these could be forgotten. We cannot allow this to happen. We have to remember, learn and prepare.”

Heed ‘big lessons’ of test and trace

As the UK wrestled to stay on top of infections throughout last year, only 60 per cent of close contacts were regularly reached each week – well below the 80 per cent figure needed for effective test and trace system, according to Sage.

Building a new, centralised operation alongside Deloitte and Serco proved fatal. Experienced local health “teams have been underused during this pandemic, with very expensive private sector consultants being employed instead”, says Dr Michael Head, an expert in global health.

Having been starved of £800m in funding since 2012, Public Health England (PHE) had 300 tracers for the whole of England at the start of the crisis, which meant the agency was capable of processing only five new infections a week due to the network of close contacts linked to each case.

But instead of pumping money into existing health networks to scale up tracing teams and integrate university-based and NHS laboratories for testing, resources were channelled into a centralised network that was part-run by contractors will little experience of infection control.

“If a fraction of that was put into those structures that already exist, then of course that’d have been a better response to what we had with all the outsourcing,” says Professor Deenan Pillay, a virologist at University College London.

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