Home News Ex-Covid chief makes stark admission about future: 'We'll definitely get another pandemic'

Ex-Covid chief makes stark admission about future: 'We'll definitely get another pandemic'

Britons need to get used to the fact another pandemic will happen, a leading health expert has said. Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, told MPs on Monday (March 4) that it was inconceivable there wouldn’t be another “big event”.

He told Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee if the Omicron variant, which emerged in November 2021, had been the initial strain, then the “whole system” would have collapsed.

Asked by Conservative MP Greg Clark if there would be a new pandemic at some point, Sir John told MPs: “I would bet the house on it. It’s definitely going to happen.

“We should just get used to that. The real question is: What is the likelihood of that happening in the short term? It would definitely happen in the medium or long term for sure.

“As you know there are many things pushing humans together with a wide range of different species. We’re doing a lot of things that are high risk. Climate change is not going to help with that – insects are moving all over – so some of the better estimates suggest that there’s a 20 or 30 percent chance of having another pandemic in the next 15 or 20 years.

“That’s a big number. Now whether it’s a profound pandemic or one that’s not so bad, I think we have to wait and see. But it seems inconceivable to me that we won’t have a big event.”

Sir John said the Covid pandemic could have been much worse, adding case fatality rates for a respiratory infection of one percent or less from a societal point of view is not so bad, though he acknowledged it would be a disaster for those who lost loved ones.

In a committee hearing centred on how well prepared Britain is to prevent another pandemic, Sir John expressed disappointment at the COVID-19 Inquiry.

The Inquiry is currently probing decision-making and governance arrangements during the pandemic, with a focus this week on how leaders in Wales responded.

Sir John told MPs overall he felt “a bit disappointed” by the Inquiry, having hoped it would lead towards a greater understanding of what the UK did right, and what it got wrong, in order to meet future public health challenges.

He said it was more of an exercise in generating work for the legal profession, with a lack of attention so far on serious, scientific detail.

Asked for his reflections on the pandemic and its handling, the Oxford University professor said the country was confronted with a crisis of which no one had any real experience.

Sir John, who was a leading commentator during the Covid pandemic, said: “I think we did pretty badly at the beginning. The system was largely unprepared for that particular type of pandemic.”

He added: “This was a relatively easy pandemic to manage. The fatality rates were relatively low and it happened to be a pathogen for which we could make vaccines relatively easily, which we did…

“I think it’s very sobering to think of what a real, severe pandemic would do in this country.”

The expert said modelling carried out by health analytics firm Airfinity showed if the original Covid variant had been Omicron, which he said was more infectious, then mortalities would have increased fivefold and the system would have collapsed.

He told MPs: “What’s crucial now is we lock in those learnings so that if we did get one of these really bad events, we would be in a much better position to deal with it.”

Sir John, who was former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s testing tsar, told the Committee the Government needed to prepare now for the next event, rather than wait for the outcome of the Covid enquiry, which won’t report for weeks or months.

He said: “At the moment I haven’t seen any insights as to how do we prepare ourselves better for the next event. Maybe that’s coming in the future, but I think it would be foolish to wait for that.”

Chair of the Covid-19 Inquiry, Baroness Hallett, said in February she does not want the proceedings to “drag on”, vowing investigations would be concluded “promptly” and reports published regularly so lessons can be learned as soon as possible.

Baroness Hallett has said she aims to conclude public hearings by the summer of 2026.


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