Writing in the Independent this week, Vince Cable condemned the Government’s decision to shut down Public Health England.
He suggested that it was the scapegoat for the Government’s policy failings before setting out why it is such a bad idea:
Aside from practical questions about who is to deal with other public health issues like obesity and sexual health, the long-term challenge for the new agency and its network of local public health officers is to make Britain better prepared for serious pandemics in future. They must be ready, too, for the more predictable annual rounds of flu, which though they are sufficiently understood to be countered by vaccination still affect 15 per cent of the population, and each year kills 10,000 people in the UK and a quarter to half a million people worldwide.
He talks of the need to look at environmental factors at an international level to limit future pandemics:
But prevention cannot be achieved by any one country working alone when we are considering the complex origins of zoonotic viruses which have jumped species. Blame for Covid is placed on Chinese wet markets and dietary preferences which fits the politically convenient narrative of Chinese culpability. But there are deeper problems.
Some scientists point to the impact of deforestation which is bringing humans and domesticated animals into closer contact with previously unknown species and viruses. As forest cover disappears, the species face mass extinction but the viruses contained in the fauna can strike back. And once new, dangerous, viruses are in circulation, growing connectivity means that local outbreaks become global very quickly. Worryingly, there is little sign that the necessary lessons about unsustainable lifestyles are being drawn.
He talks of future pandemics as an inevitability and suggests that the economic consequences of prolonged national lockdowns may be too severe so we need to find a way to limit spread.
In future pandemics a lot will depend on how fatal a given virus is, and this may not be clear at the outset. But where pandemics are, like Covid, highly infectious but have relatively low fatality rates overall there will have to be a more critical and hard-headed approach to the cost and benefits of shutting societies down for extended periods.
Although, the Swedish government made mistakes (notably, as in Britain, neglecting care homes), and was condemned by its neighbours and much of its own population as callous and irresponsible, there is now a grudging acknowledgement that they may have been on to something. The collateral damage of lockdown – in terms of the economy and neglect of other health conditions – appears to have been significantly lessened and infection rates appear to have subsided.
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