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Flu-based pandemic preparations meant herd immunity was seen as ‘inevitable’ – Hunt

21 Jun 2023 4 minute read
PA video grab image of Chancellor Jeremy Hunt

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has admitted being part of “groupthink” when he was health secretary, leading to a “narrowness of thinking” that failed to expand UK pandemic preparedness beyond planning for a flu outbreak.

The focus on any future pandemic being flu-based meant there was a “shared assumption that herd immunity was inevitably” going to be the strategy used to contain a new virus, he told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

He also revealed that he was not briefed about UK government modelling of a non-flu based epidemic despite it being carried out while he was the cabinet minister responsible for health.

Mr Hunt said it was a “wholly mistaken assumption” for past administrations not to prepare for “other types of pandemic that might emerge”.

The Treasury chief was giving evidence to the first stage of the inquiry, which is looking into UK preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic, a virus that caused the country to be placed under restrictions several times from March 2020.

The senior Conservative politician, who was health secretary between 2012 and 2018, said exercises to prepare for a future pandemic were full of “groupthink”, which he wished he had “challenged at the time”.

Studies

He said studies by the likes of Johns Hopkins University in the US had viewed the UK as being “very good at dealing with pandemics” but said that assumption proved to be “completely wrong”.

“We hadn’t given nearly enough thought to other types of pandemic that might emerge and that was, with the benefit of hindsight, a wholly mistaken assumption,” Mr Hunt told the inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith KC on Wednesday.

He suggested the government had “too narrow a focus” during Exercise Cygnus, a cross-government exercise in 2016 to test the UK’s response to a serious influenza pandemic.

The findings of Exercise Alice, modelling which also took place that same year to assess the impact of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), were not shared with him, he also revealed.

Mr Hunt said the Alice report was the “only place” where the “importance of quarantining” was clearly laid out.

He added: “The fundamental issue was that we were — and by the way not just us, across western Europe and North America — there was a shared assumption that herd immunity was inevitably going to be the only way you could contain a virus because it spread like wildfire.”

UK “groupthink” had also led ministers and officials to think “we knew this stuff best”, he said, adding that there was a “narrowness of thinking” when it came to learning from Taiwan and South Korea, which had dealt with Mers.

“They learned those lessons and there was clearly a narrowness of thinking, of which I was part, which didn’t think hard enough about that kind of potential pandemic,” Mr Hunt added.

The Cabinet minister said that had officials understood the role of quarantining infected people, as discovered in East Asian countries during Mers, then the first coronavirus lockdown might have been “avoided”.

Reassured

Mr Hunt’s evidence comes after Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden told the inquiry he was reassured during his time in the Cabinet Office, from July 2019 to February 2020, that the UK was in a “pretty strong state of preparedness” for any future pandemic.

Mr Dowden also told the investigation that preparations for a no-deal Brexit put the country in a “strong position” to respond to other challenges.

The deputy premier’s evidence session had followed on from Professor Sir Mark Walport, who told the inquiry the UK had not been “operationally prepared” for a pandemic.

The former chief scientific adviser to the UK government said the focus in developed countries had “moved away from infectious diseases after the Second World War”, with more attention on conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

It came after Lord Bethell, a Conservative former health minister, said “making money is not a crime” as he defended the VIP lane for coronavirus-related contracts, which saw some politically-connected firms make huge profits.

The peer also blamed “longstanding” inequalities for the NHS not being sufficiently prepared for the pandemic.

Ending the day’s evidence, Mr Hunt said the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis made it impossible to boost NHS funding sooner to better prepare for the pandemic.

The Chancellor admitted feeling “concerned” about the “fragility” of the NHS and Social Care systems after Exercise Cygnus, leading to an announced increase in funding in June 2018.


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Y Cymro
Y Cymro
9 months ago

Herd immunity plans for a possible flu pandemic was used for COVID -19, a new strain of virus that was killing at one point over 1000 people a day, both young & old, says Jeremy Hunt. Is the Conservative clown for real? What about Boris Johnson freely admitting to shaking the hands of COVID patients even though he had information as did you Jeremy that the virus was airborne and easily spread by contact . Did that flu pandemic plan also include Chancellor Rishy Sunak’s, “Eat Out For £10” pandemic pick n mix where the old saying, “I’m dying for… Read more »

Connoisseur of Understatement
Connoisseur of Understatement
9 months ago
Reply to  Y Cymro

Herd immunity is a phenomenon, not a strategy! it’s the phenomenon of non-immune individuals being less likely to get infected when there are lots of immune individuals around them. Not a difficult concept, even for a PPE graduate. By calling this phenomenon a “strategy”, Hunt is making a semantic category error. I wonder whether he’s making this semantic category error in order to fool the gullible or because he’s a fool. My guess is that his advisers explained that the phenomenon of herd immunity is the most marked with sterilising immunity and the least marked with immunity that permits asymptomatic… Read more »

Mawkernewek
Mawkernewek
9 months ago

Surely herd immunity by mass infection would be very much not containing the virus, not a strategy to contain the virus!

In any case, now we know that people can and do catch COVID more than once, there is no herd immunity by infection anyway.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
9 months ago

So far ‘we were totally useless’ is the best they can come up with…’let the buyer beware’

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