Jul 14, 2020 - World

The U.K. was the most-prepared country for a pandemic — until it wasn't

Photo: Julian Simmonds/WPA Pool/Getty Images

One country was easily the best-prepared in the world to respond quickly to and mitigate the spread of an epidemic, according to the 2019 Global Health Security Index: Great Britain.

Reality check: When the coronavirus struck, the U.K. had arguably one of the least effective responses among rich countries, despite decades of preparation for just such an event. Its death toll ranks behind only the U.S. and Brazil.

The big picture: Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been heavily criticized for failing to prioritize the virus early on, and his scientific advisers came under fire for initially advising against lockdown.

  • Since then, the government has been criticized for not ramping up testing capacity quickly enough and for its struggles on contact tracing.

Flashback: Jeremy Hunt, who served as the U.K.'s health secretary from 2012 to 2018 and now chairs the parliamentary Health and Social Care Select Committee, ran a "huge tabletop exercise" to simulate a pandemic over three days in 2016.

  • That produced a series of recommendations, Hunt told the FT's Payne's Politics podcast. None of them had to do with testing capacity or PPE, because the U.K. was basing its preparations on pandemic flu, Hunt says.
  • When a real-life pandemic struck, the scientific body that advises the government proposed either a herd immunity strategy or lockdown. Widespread test-and-trace wasn't considered.
  • "There was a kind of groupthink in our approach to pandemics that had conditioned us all to think that the way you respond to a pandemic is the way you respond to a flu," he says.

Between the lines: The U.K. had years of preparation to call upon, but it could have also looked around the world and learned from best practices elsewhere.

  • "South Korea was doing what it was doing in January and February, but it wasn't until April that [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] started to model" that approach, Hunt says.

Worth noting: The U.S. was second in the 2019 rankings on rapid response to an epidemic, while Brazil was also in the "most prepared" category.

  • Some countries much farther down the rankings — Uruguay (81), Vietnam (73) — have fared much better.
Go deeper