The UK is sleepwalking into another health crisis
In recent years, it is not just holiday meals that have posed an imminent threat to the lives of British turkeys. Since late 2021, the U.K. has faced an ongoing wave of avian influenza that has killed at least four million birds.
Bird flu, as it is more commonly known, is the latest in a series of disease outbreaks that have plagued the U.K. over the past two decades. Outbreaks, including foot-and-mouth disease in the early 2000s, swine flu in 2009 and Covid since 2020, have been made worse by a political system that, at its best, treats science with indifference and, at its worst, with disdain.
In the midst of the bird flu outbreak, an October 2022 parliamentary committee report revealed that the main facility for the country’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, a site in the town of Weybridge, on London’s outskirts, is being underfunded. This puts the U.K. at risk of entering another deadly outbreak unprepared.
This neglect is also deepening a rift between the scientific community, whose job it is to advise, and politicians, whose job it is to decide what course of action to take during public health crises. This neglect was laid bare in the government’s Covid response. In early 2020, members of parliament appointed a committee of scientists to advise policymakers on how to tackle the virus, known as the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. But nearly every aspect of this process happened in secret — the names of committee members were not made public and meetings happened behind closed doors.
In response to the near-total lack of autonomy and transparency in the official advisory group, in May 2020, experts set up an independent advisory group (known as the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies or Independent SAGE) that works on a volunteer basis to provide independent scientific advice to the government and the public on how to minimize deaths and support the country’s recovery. In a March 2022 review of its work to date, Independent SAGE wrote: “Scientific advisers should be critical friends to governments, speaking truth to power.”
Other experts too have called for scientific advisors to be given more autonomy as a mechanism for ensuring politicians do not just seek out whichever advice best aligns with their other political goals.
But so far, this doesn’t seem to be happening. After the country steered itself past the worst of the pandemic, a separate parliamentary report criticized the U.K.’s approach to the crisis, saying it was “too reactive as opposed to anticipatory.” Ministers have been trotted out to reassure the U.K. public and global partners that the government is doing everything it can to prepare for future pandemics.
Yet many such assurances have proven hollow, as the government also has stepped back from several vital research efforts. One is the Pandemic Sciences Institute, which was designed to improve bio-defenses by providing the U.K. with the knowledge and strategies required to respond to the next major outbreak and avoid the failures that defined the Covid response. According to the Telegraph, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised the institute over $175 million but never delivered. Whether the U.K.’s new conservative prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who came into power in October, will follow through on this and other bold commitments is yet to be seen.
Kate Bingham, who in 2020 steered the U.K.’s vaccine procurement and deployment as the chair of the Vaccine Taskforce, in late November told a parliamentary inquiry that the government was failing to prepare for a future pandemic by not supporting scientific research into variants and by allowing access to vaccines to wane. Baffled by this lack of leadership, Bingham said she is beginning to see it as “deliberate Government policy not to invest and not to support the sector.”
When conservative politicians ignored their own government’s advice by refusing to wear masks in the House of Commons, it angered scientists, with some frustrated by what they saw as a pervasive culture of prioritizing ideological concerns over scientific advice. For Kit Yates, a member of the independent advisory group and senior lecturer in mathematical sciences at the University of Bath, it was evidence that the U.K. has not learned its lesson from the Covid pandemic.
Scientists have also felt that the government is too willing to throw them under the bus when things go wrong — prior to becoming prime minister, Sunak said that scientists should not have been given so much power in responding to Covid. Yates himself sees a link between this rhetoric and attacks that he personally received online and in the press, as political frustration with scientists trickles down into society.
Natalie Bennett, a Green Party member in the House of Lords, says that the political right are more resistant to science and that the current government is worse at dealing with science than any other for the last twenty years. But beyond ideology, neglect is also underpinned by a lack of understanding of science across the political system.
“When you look at so many of the issues, whether it’s Covid, whether it’s the climate emergency and nature crisis, whether it’s issues of public health, there’s so few people from either side of the house, who know how to ask the right questions,” Bennett said.
The consequences of neglecting science are not just limited to the Covid outbreak. Bennet told me over the phone that future disease outbreaks could be far worse than Covid.
In October 2022, as concerns about the bird flu outbreak were reaching a crisis point, the Public Accounts Committee in the U.K. Parliament released a report warning that the U.K. government was failing to prioritize the significant threat posed by animal diseases to the country’s health, trade, farming and rural communities. It raised concerns about the state of the U.K.’s main animal health facility at Weybridge, which it said “has been left to deteriorate to an alarming extent,” leaving the country unprepared for high category animal disease outbreaks or to deal with more than one outbreak at a time.
After a long period of underinvestment and mismanagement, there is now a redevelopment plan to improve the site, but this will take more than 12 years, and the committee is unsure the government will cough up the billions of dollars needed to properly carry it out. The government is underestimating the threat posed by diseases such as rabies, bovine tuberculosis and African swine flu, said the committee.
While bird flu has decimated bird populations, causing devastating effects on the livelihoods of poultry farmers, a swine flu outbreak could do the same to pigs and the pork industry in the near future.
The Weybridge facility and the government department that runs it have been essential in ensuring the U.K. catches animal disease outbreaks early, according to Paul Wigley, a professor of avian infection and immunity at the University of Liverpool. Wigley’s concerns are not just limited to known diseases such foot-and-mouth disease but also to “novel” ones.
“There is always a chance that something will leap from somewhere that we have not seen before or become a new variant of something that we have not really seen before,” Wigley said.
Such diseases could pose a significant threat to human life. We have had Covid. It is now widely accepted that another pandemic is not a question of if but when. Like a turkey voting for Christmas, the government’s neglect of science puts the U.K. at risk of sleepwalking into that crisis.
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