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Former UK prime minister acknowledges mistake in COVID-19 preparedness, calls for broader focus in inquiry

  • Former British Prime Minister David Cameron has admitted that the country made an error in prioritizing preparations for a flu pandemic over other types of pandemics prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Cameron was questioned at a public inquiry into the UK’s pandemic preparedness and acknowledged that officials focused too narrowly on influenza and did not consider the possibility of outbreaks.
  • The COVID-19 virus was attributed as the cause of death for nearly 227,000 individuals in the UK, placing the country among the highest COVID-19 death tolls in Europe.

Britain made a mistake in focusing too much on preparations for a flu pandemic rather than considering other types of pandemic in the years before the COVID-19 outbreak, former Prime Minister David Cameron told a public inquiry Monday.

Cameron, who led Britain’s Conservative government from 2010 to 2016, was the first politician to be questioned by the wide-ranging inquiry into the U.K.’s preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic, how the government responded and what lessons can be learned for the future.

The U.K. had one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in Europe, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for almost 227,000 people.

Giving evidence under oath, Cameron said that during his time in office, officials were too narrowly focused on the dangers of an influenza pandemic. Not enough questions were asked about the possibility of an outbreak of other highly infectious respiratory diseases, he said.

“So much time was spent on a pandemic influenza and that was seen as the greatest danger,” Cameron said.

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He said his government did look at other pandemics, including MERS and SARS. But he added: “I think the failing was not to ask more questions about asymptomatic transmission, highly infectious … what turned out to be the pandemic we had.”

He said many countries were “in the same boat of not knowing what was coming,” but he argued that the U.K. did better than many to “scan the horizon, to try and plan” for a pandemic.

Cameron also rejected accusations that austerity measures under his leadership that cut government spending on public services left the U.K.’s National Health Service much more vulnerable to the pandemic.

COVID deaths

Pictured is Britain’s former prime minister David Cameron giving evidence to the UK COVID-19 Inquiry, during its first investigation examining if the pandemic was properly planned for at Dorland House in London, on June 19, 2023.  (PA via AP)

Earlier, the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, argued that Cameron’s austerity policies led to years of damage to public health care and a “failure to prioritize the nation’s health.”

“The U.K. was severely on the back foot when COVID took hold, and this proved disastrous,” said Philip Banfield, chair of council at the union.

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The official inquiry, led by a retired judge, is set to take three years to complete. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led the U.K. during the pandemic, agreed in late 2021 to hold the probe after heavy pressure from bereaved families.

Many other senior politicians are expected to be called to face questions. On Wednesday Jeremy Hunt, the current Treasury chief and former health secretary, and deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden are due to testify.

The pandemic and how Britain’s government handled it is a topic that is again dominating headlines after lawmakers issued a scathing report last week concluding that Johnson deliberately misled Parliament over lockdown-flouting staff parties at his office.

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