With coronavirus rates surging in parts of Europe, the former head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce has said that the pandemic “could have been a lot worse”.
Dame Kate Bingham said the lessons from COVID should be used to treat the threat of a future pandemic as “serious as defence threats” – and investment should go into preventing them.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This pandemic, devastating how it was, could have been a lot worse.
“It could have been more lethal – it could have been a virus that mutates much more rapidly, which means you can’t develop vaccines.
“So this is not the time to sit back on our laurels.
“This is the time to recognise that pandemic threats are as serious as defence threats and should be invested and supported in the same way.”
While the vaccine rollout across England has been regarded a success, Bingham this week criticised “the machinery of government” for potentially delaying it by months.
Taking aim at the civil service, Bingham wrote in The Times that there is “an obsessive fear of personal error and criticism” that “encourages foot-dragging”.
Boris Johnson tasked Bingham with leading the vaccine taskforce near the start of the pandemic, which sought to secure jabs that were deemed not likely to succeed before they were available.
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The move has been credited as the reason behind the early success of the rollout but Bingham suggested that it was the intervention of chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance that allowed the taskforce to be set up as quickly as it was.
She said in a speech at Oxford University on Tuesday: “Had we relied on the existing machinery of government, the outcome could have been very different.”
Bingham added that the UK was “neglecting” the threat of future pandemics and urged ministers – who she said lacked the scientific understanding to grasp COVID – to act now to build defences against a future catastrophe.
She called for a pandemic security adviser or minister to ensure the UK’s preparedness capabilities.
There have been 144,137 deaths within 28 days of positive test in the UK since the start of the pandemic, compared to more than 133,000 in Italy.
Germany, where COVID cases have surged in recent weeks, have nearly reached the 100,000 deaths milestone, with 99,773 recorded so far.
More than 87,000 deaths have been recorded in Spain, while France has seen more than 119,000 deaths.
The UK has the second highest number of deaths per million people in Europe, according to Our World in Data.
The figures show there have been 2,119.71 deaths per million people in the UK, compared to 2,208.64 in Italy.
While Germany has seen rising cases recently – thought to be because of the lower numbers of vaccines given out – their deaths per million people stands at 1,189.18, behind France (1,770.24) and Spain (1,879.68).
A total of 50,800,732 first doses of the COVID vaccine had been delivered in the UK by 22 November, government figures show – a rise of 23,258 on the previous day.
A combined total of 15,639,477 booster and third doses have also been given, a day-on-day rise of 308,166.
On Tuesday, coronavirus advice was tightened in England ahead of the Christmas period.
People in England have been advised to take a test before visiting crowded indoor spaces – which could include busy shops or Christmas parties.
Members of the public also advised to take a test before visiting a person who is at higher risk of getting seriously ill from COVID and get a PCR test if they have symptoms.
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