Britain not ready for ‘inevitable’ next pandemic, warns ex-chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance

 (Getty )
(Getty )

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser during the Covid pandemic, has warned that Britain is not prepared for another pandemic.

The scientist called for future pandemics to be treated like potential wars, with as much focus going into planning for them as goes into the armed forces.

Speaking at the Hay Festival, during a panel chaired by The Independent’s editor in chief Geordie Greig, Sir Patrick said: “Are we ready for another pandemic? The answer is no.”

He identified several key areas for improvement. “We need better surveillance to be able to pick these things up,” he said. “We need to be much faster, much more aligned. And there are ways to do this – getting rapid diagnostic tests, rapid vaccines, rapid treatments – so that you don’t have to go into the extreme measures that took place last time.”

Vallance said that future pandemics, which he called “absolutely inevitable” need “continual government focus and attention”, and yet “by 2023 the G7 had sort of forgotten about it.”

He continued: “You can’t forget about it in two years.”

Sir Patrick speaking at the Hay Festival, with an ominous warning on future diseases (Adam Tatton-Reid and Hay Festival)
Sir Patrick speaking at the Hay Festival, with an ominous warning on future diseases (Adam Tatton-Reid and Hay Festival)

Sir Patrick was the UK government’s chief scientific adviser from 2018 until last year, helping to shape key coronavirus policy including lockdowns, as well as becoming a familiar face to millions on the televised Covid briefings alongside then PM Boris Johnson.

Painting a picture of Johnson’s incompetence during the pandemic, he said that when he was asked to present at the G7, on Zoom, the PM interrupted him to tell him he was on mute. Sir Patrick said he told the PM he was certain that he wasn’t on mute, and then watched as “somebody came across and whispered into Johnson’s ear and he said, ‘Ah, sorry, I haven’t got my headphones in.’”

Sir Patrick added: “What is absolutely inevitable is there will be another pandemic. And we’re not ready yet. I don’t think we’re treating it in the way that we treat, for example, the armed forces. We know we have to have an army, not because there’s going to be a war this year, but because it’s an important part of what we need as a nation. We need to treat this preparedness [for a pandemic] in the same way, and not to view it as an easy thing to keep cutting back when there’s no sign of one.”

He also said, however, that he was feeling optimistic about the Pandemic Preparedness Treaty that the World Heath Organisation is attempting to push through. The main goal of the treaty would be to foster an all-of-government and all-of-society approach, strengthening national, regional and global capacities and resilience against future pandemics.

“I’m optimistic for this so-called ‘100 Day Mission’ to get diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines,” he said. “But it needs political will to drive that forward, and I’m concerned that that’s going to get lost quite quickly.”

Speaking more generally about chaos in No 10, Sir Patrick said: “We have seen, I think, a really extraordinary situation over the past few years with multiple prime ministers, no real accountability for what’s going on and an extremely chaotic system that needs to be revised. That’s why it’s really important that there is an election now. It’s time that we have a change.”

He said the sight of prime minister Rishi Sunak, standing out in the pouring rain this week, as he announced there would be a general election on 4 July, was “emblematic” of the “chaos” within the Conservative Party.

The Independent has partnered with Hay Festival for The News Review panel series, which sees journalists explore current affairs with leading figures from politics, science, the arts and comedy.

Over the coming days, Mr Greig and The Independent’s chief book critic Martin Chilton will continue to host the series of morning events, which will welcome guests including shadow secretary of state for health Wes Streeting and comedian Doon Mackichan.

The Independent partners with Hay Festival for ‘The News Review’ from 25-28 May, book tickets here.