COVID: How Incorrect Assumptions and Poor Foresight Hampered the U.K. Pandemic Preparedness

Flawed Assumptions
The assumption that any new viral pandemic would develop along similar lines as previous influenza pandemics was arguably the key flaw in the UK’s planning doctrine.

Countries that had been significantly affected by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2002–2004 – principally China but also other Asian countries – didn’t make the same mistake. Those countries recognized important biological similarities between COVID (or SARS-CoV-2) and SARS (or SARS-CoV-1) and quickly took action against COVID by means of intensive testing and quarantine policies.

In contrast, the UK lost valuable time between mid-February and mid-March while COVID cases and subsequent deaths were rapidly beginning to rise. The effect on older adults and other vulnerable people in UK care homes was especially severe.

In the end, the UK’s first wave of COVID was only slowed and eventually stopped by the introduction of a lockdown in the fourth week of March 2020.

Poor Planning
Hancock’s statement raises a key question about the extent to which errors in the UK’s pandemic planning could have been foreseen at the time. Notably, the UK’s healthcare planning authorities could have taken a wider view of the potential nature of viral pandemics.

The earlier Sars outbreak had been largely confined to China, although it spread to more than 20 other countries through worldwide air travel, and was contained within a few short months. Therefore, the risk of future outbreaks of this type in the UK was regarded as relatively low. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to include the global re-emergence of a Sars-type virus as one of the possible, albeit more extreme, pandemic scenarios analyzed in the UK’s planning exercises in 2016.

Even given the wrong assumption regarding the nature of the new virus, some issues could have been anticipated better. For example, it was well known that the supply chain for personal protective equipment (PPE), which is vital for health and care staff, had become increasingly dependent on low-cost suppliers in China. If the UK’s pandemic planning exercises had taken a more global perspective, the breakdown in the PPE supply chain in the spring of 2020, which caused huge financial waste (and apparent corruption), could have been better anticipated.

Other questions, such as when effective COVID vaccines would become available, were much harder to predict.

In sum, no planning exercise can cover all eventualities. But a key requirement for policymakers should be to learn as fast and effectively as possible while events unfold.

The business concept of “dynamic capability” – that is, an organization’s ability to configure and reconfigure its assets, processes and capabilities so as to respond effectively to rapidly changing external circumstances – is useful here. Building and strengthening this capability should be a prerequisite for policymakers and planners in government.

In regards to Hancock’s comment that the planning was “completely wrong”, one could say that the UK plans were indeed flawed in their key assumption (of an influenza rather than a coronavirus pandemic), but also that policymakers should have learned the true nature of the new virus more quickly than they did.

Robert Van Der Meer is Professor of Management Science, University of Strathclyde. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.