‘None are safe until all are safe’

Building healthcare resilience against future pandemics

Photo by Todd Cravens on Unsplash

Yesterday, shadow health secretary and Labour MP for Leicester South, Jonathan Ashworth gave the keynote address at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) webinar on building healthcare resilience. Central Bylines was on hand to take notes and put together this summary.

Unprecedented not unpredicted
The Covid-19 pandemic may be unprecedented but it was not unpredicted. In a TED talk from 2015, Bill Gates himself declared that the greatest threat to humanity currently comes from microbes not missiles. Future outbreaks are inevitable and healthcare resilience is essential if we are to deal with them effectively.

The current pandemic caught us unprepared. The UK is a rich country but millions of our people walk a tightrope. Covid-19 knocked them off.

A decade of austerity has diminished healthcare and public health funding. The NHS entered the current crisis short of 100,000 staff, including 40,000 nurses. Our PPE stockpile had been allowed to dwindle. But we also need to understand that everything links up. Poor health and housing, job and income insecurity, lack of green spaces – all these contribute to health inequality and reducing life expectancy. Health inequality has led to worse outcomes for Covid-19, with vulnerable groups all disproportionately affected.

It didn’t have to be like this. A more equal society would have coped better.

Political will is important. A coordinated strategy of public health would have meant that we didn’t have to choose between Covid care and cancer care. Local public health should have led our response to the pandemic; it has the expertise and the local networks. Instead, billions have been wasted outsourcing the work to private companies. At the beginning of the pandemic, there wasn’t even an independent public health expert on SAGE.

The refusal to invest in public health is unforgivable. Reducing health inequality must become our lodestar.

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We know the next one will come, although we don’t know exactly what or when. The most common emerging diseases are zoonoses – animal diseases that can jump to humans. This is happening with increasing frequency, driven by deforestation which increases our contact with wild animals, the expansion of poultry and pig farming, the exploitation of wildlife. Once a disease has made the jump to humans, our highly-connected world rapidly establishes human-to-human transmission.

Global warming has changed animal behaviour. One billion people could be newly exposed to viruses such as Zika and Dengue by the end of this century because the mosquitoes that carry them are migrating to new and warmer areas.

What can we do?

We can respond effectively but it needs a widespread and connected commitment.

  1. A core commitment to public health
  2. A commitment to tackling climate change. Reducing biodiversity loss is key to building health security. The UK must make this clear during our leadership of COP26 and the G7 this year.
  3. A commitment to science. Research and development, genomic sequencing, surveillance, mathematical models are all powerful tools that can help us.
  4. A commitment to universal access to science and innovation. We need global alert systems and international agreements with shared benefits. Vaccine nationalism is to be deplored – none are safe until all are safe.
  5. A commitment to international cooperation. Nations must share ideas for health and pandemic preparedness.

Mr Ashworth’s address and the rest of the webinar can be seen here.

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