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Planning for No Deal Brexit Under Boris Johnson Scuppered UK’s Readiness for a Pandemic, Covid Inquiry Hears

Report exposes delayed pandemic preparation due to government machine having to focus fully on avoiding a crash-out exit from the EU without a deal.

Prof David Alexander, Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London. Photo: UK Covid Inquiry

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Planning for a No Deal Brexit severely impacted Britain’s ability to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, the Covid Inquiry has been told. 

Emergency work to manage the risk of the UK hurtling out of the European Union without a trade agreement – as threatened by Boris Johnson after he took office in 2019 – had a notable impact on Britain’s pandemic preparedness, according to a former Ministry of Defence director.  

Bruce Mann, who also previously served as Director of Civil Contingencies in the Cabinet Office, told the inquiry’s hearing on pandemic preparedness: “It’s not a political point, it’s an administrative point..As well as preparing for a No Deal exit, there should have been capacity made available to continue to pursue preparedness planning in other fields”.

A report by Mann and Professor David Alexander, Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London, today reveals that a “significant majority” of pandemic-specific work in government, initiated as part of an “enhanced readiness program” for pandemics in 2017, was either delayed or paused due to No Deal planning. 

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This includes work related to healthcare provision, adult social care, and resilience in critical sectors, the report noted. Crucially, a pandemic bill was drafted years before Covid hit but was shelved by the government, the report notes. 

Evidence submitted to the inquiry by Sir David Sterling, the former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, showed: “Three challenges of persistent political instability, resource pressures and Brexit were significant issues…combined to create a complex and difficult context” in NI before the pandemic. 

Bruce Mann added: “Planning for a major emergency [such as a pandemic] was paused.”

Speakers said the UK has failed to plan for medium and long-term risks. Prof Alexander said: “We were lucky that we didn’t have, for example, major flooding during Covid. It could easily have happened or something else further complicating the response required.

“The bottom line is: does the British government within the limits of its competency keep the public safe? I fear my answer to that is no, or not sufficiently.” 

The UK’s National Risk Register and National Security Risk Assessment have “very short time horizons” he added – despite climate change having severe medium and long-term effects. 


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“Government has an essential and central role in providing safety to its population. It could do more and better in that.” And the report from the pair noted that the “risk picture” is likely to get worse with the “impact of climate change [and] a deteriorating international security environment”. 

Prof Alexander also hit out at Covid legislation – which was “essentially drafted in 2017” was “passed very quickly with little debate” once the pandemic had started. 

The inquiry also heard evidence on the potential causes of the pandemic, with Professor David Heymann – previously Chair of the Health Protection Agency UK and an expert in infectious diseases – saying that “all infections” are thought to have come from an animal at some point. But he also noted the potential for Covid to have leaked from a biological laboratory in Wuhan, describing them as two key hypotheses. 

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The risk of new diseases spreading, however, is heightened when animals are “raised in intensive animal farms” and taken to unclean “live markets”. “The animal kingdom and humans have to be maintained separate as far as possible,” he said, adding: “We need to ensure live animal markets are conducted in the right way so that the animals that come to those markets are raised in conditions where they can’t become infected.”

The UK’s 2021 integrated review of risks found that “infectious disease outbreaks are likely to be more frequent by 2030…Another novel pandemic remains realistic probability”.

Prof Alexander told the inquiry he was “slightly surprised” that the government describes another pandemic as only “realistic”. Instead, “It’s an “inevitability [given] pandemics’ frequent occurrence throughout human history”. 

The inquiry is hearing from experts to assess whether the UK could have been more prepared for the outbreak of Covid 19 ahead of 2020. 

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