The terrifying issue neither Starmer nor Sunak want to confront

Another pandemic could occur in the next few years
Another pandemic could occur in the next few years

This is a strange election campaign in a number of ways. One way in particular stands out: there has been no debate whatsoever between the main parties, nor any real scrutiny of them by the media, regarding the most consequential governmental response enacted by the last parliament. The response, of course, was to the Covid pandemic.

Why aren’t the parties declaring, debating and being challenged on how they anticipate responding to the next pandemic? Large-scale epidemics that spread across multiple countries are not especially uncommon events. They occur about once every fifteen years on average, and there’s some evidence they are becoming more frequent over time as cities and international interconnectedness grow.

During the 21 century there have been three major such events: SARS in 2003, Swine Flu in 2009 and Covid in 2019. It’s been nearly five years now since Covid began. It’s far from impossible that the next pandemic could happen under the next government.

Don’t people and political parties have a view on how we should respond? Maybe you think we should have locked down quicker and harder. Or maybe you think we should have had far fewer mandatory restrictions, as some other countries did.

Perhaps politicians would like to pretend it is just a technical issue, so it makes no more sense to have a political debate about it than about the best way to conduct surgery or the best pills to give someone with a chest infection. But that is manifestly not the case.

Different countries and different US states took different approaches reflecting their differing philosophical positions as well as their different views on the best technical tactics. We are more than happy to have political debates about technical issues in economics, so why not in pandemic management?

There are serious philosophical tradeoffs in the management of an epidemic: the value of lives versus liberty; the interests of the young versus the old; the faith we should place in technology; the relevance or otherwise of standard government assessment tools such as cost-benefit analysis; whether it is better to use the government balance sheet to stop the economy adjusting or to encourage more rapid adjustment; whether the government has any right, even in principle, to tell us what adults we can and cannot have sex with; the role of exhortation versus mandating; whether “something will turn up” is a legitimate basis for blighting people’s lives, careers and education. This is no less important an area of political debate than NHS reform, housing or transport policies.

It isn’t as though this is one of those matters where there is a political consensus – even a misguided one. The Labour party’s position was that the Conservatives locked down too late initially, that they should have locked down sooner in late 2020, that they removed all restrictions too soon in July 2021 (remember Starmer denouncing the “Johnson variant”) and that there should have been additional restrictions introduced that weren’t in Autumn 2021.

Labour clearly has a different approach to this question, and if Labour wins we can expect that different approach to be reflected in tougher restrictions on us when there’s next a pandemic.

Perhaps we were all so traumatised by the events of the pandemic that we do not want to relive the horrors of Covid by debating policy in this area. But the threat of another pandemic in the next few years is real. We ought to be challenging the parties on what they’d do if that unhappy event occurs.