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‘British exceptionalism’ undermined pandemic preparedness, professor tells MPs

03 Dec 2020 3 minute read
Dame Sally Davies. Picture by Royal Society Uploader (CC BY-SA 4.0).

A professor has told MPs that “British exceptionalism” undermined pandemic preparedness.

The former chief medical officer for England, Prof Dame Sally Davies, said preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic was undermined by scientists believing that such a disease was unlikely to reach UK shores and spread widely.

She told a committee hearing that  “groupthink” and “British exceptionalism” contributed to advisers underestimating the risk from pathogens that spread from animals to humans, and that this them to focus on the threat from pandemic flu.

According to the professor emergency planning exercises such as Winter Willow in 2007 and Cygnus in 2016 assumed that the world would be battling a dangerous influenza virus.

The professor said: “We were in groupthink.”

She added: “We did not – our infectious disease experts – really believe that another Sars would get to us, and I think it’s a form of British exceptionalism.”



The Sars virus she referred to sparked an epidemic in 2003 after it spread from China to four other countries.

It killed around one in 10 of the more than 8,000 people infected. The epidemic was much easier to contain than Covid-19 partly because Sars was not spread by asymptomatic people.

Davies said that although the UK was better prepared for a flu pandemic that it was because weaknesses in national planning exposed by Winter Willow and Cygnus were addressed, she said that was different to delivering well with a virus like Covid-19.

She said: “We should have put more challenges to ourselves: are we looking at all the varieties of disease we might get?

“When you’re planning for flu, the classic is you don’t bother to test, so we didn’t have a test-and-trace system to stand up.”

Scientists on the government’s Sage committee have previously given a damning assessment of the NHS test-and-trace system for Covid-19. It said that it only had a “marginal” impact on the outbreak.

Davies also said that the UK didn’t compare favourably with many European nations in terms of numbers of doctors, hospital beds and intensive care units per head of population.

She said: “We clearly had a less resilient system.”

Davies added: “We need to open up and get some more challenge into our thinking of what we are planning for. It would be well worth bringing in people from Asia and from Africa to think about that to broaden our experience and the voices in the group.”

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