David Cameron Admits It Was A 'Mistake' Not To Prepare For A Possible Coronavirus Pandemic

The ex-PM was asked if he accepts he "failed" to prepare the country for Covid.
David Cameron was quizzed by Kate Blackwell KC over how prepared the UK was for the Covid pandemic
David Cameron was quizzed by Kate Blackwell KC over how prepared the UK was for the Covid pandemic
BBC News/Covid-19 Inquiry

David Cameron admitted that his government made a mistake by not preparing for a possible pandemic from a coronavirus while being grilled as part of the Covid-19 Inquiry on Monday.

The former Conservative prime minister, who was in office between 2010 and 2016, was questioned over the systems in place to deal with large-scale emergencies when he first became PM, and the changes he brought in.

He also fielded questions on the UK’s state of pandemic preparedness, his worries around the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the impact austerity had on health and social care service.

Here’s a roundup of Cameron’s main comments from his time in front of the Inquiry.

Did Cameron’s government fail to prepare for a pandemic?

Counsel to the Inquiry, Kate Blackwell KC, asked the former PM: “You made improvements to the architecture of planning and resilience – one of your major intentions was it would lead to a whole system of preparedness – do you accept you failed in that desire?”

He said: “I don’t accept that.

“We set up a much superior architecture for planning for risks. The problem was there was too much emphasis on pandemic flu.

“The sort of pandemic we faced... many other countries were in the same boat of not knowing what was coming.”

Cameron said the government’s “mistake” came in not looking at a larger range of different pandemics, adding: “I think the failing was not to ask more questions about asymptomatic transmission and what turned out to be the pandemic we had.”

He later also pointed out: “The real problem was time spent quizzing the experts on what potential pandemics were coming and preparing for those in the right way and the questions which would follow from that.”

It’s worth noting that back in 2019, an international review said the UK was the second-best prepared country for pandemics.

Cameron defended his government's attempts to prepare for a pandemic
Cameron defended his government's attempts to prepare for a pandemic
BBC/Covid Inquiry

Did health spending decline too much under Cameron?

Following the immense strain that the NHS has been under since long before the pandemic (and since), Blackwell asked: “Do you accept that the health budgets over the time of your government were inadequate and led to the depletion of its ability to provide an adequate service?”

The doctors’ union, the British Medical Association, claims Cameron’s authority policies meant the health service was not prepared.

But, Cameron said he didn’t accept that, because it was necessary to get the budget deficit down when he was in office.

He said: “Making these difficult choices about spending was – it wasn’t a sort of option that was picked out of thin air. I believed and I still believe it was absolutely essential to get the British economy and British public finances back to health so you can cope with a future crisis.”

He sidestepped questions asking if he had been warned about the growing pressures on the NHS years before the pandemic by saying that there were successes as well, and “our job was to try and sort out the economy” so health spending could increase.

Austerity measures were “essential” he claimed, adding: “I don’t think you can separate the decision and the necessity of getting the budget deficit down... so you can cope with future crises.”

However, the ex-PM did also say he wasn’t sure if there was ever any planning “about the impact of school closures”, which was a major concern throughout the Covid pandemic.

Why was the UK so focused on a possible flu pandemic?

Cameron suggested that this may have been a product of “group-think”, noting that European countries and North America were preparing for the same kind of thing.

He also denied that there they were planning for the wrong pandemic as a flu pandemic could still happen in the future.

The Inquiry pointed out that the government was aware of the flaws in its pandemic plan after it ran Exercise Alice in 2016, commissioned in response to an outbreak of the Mers respiratory coronavirus.

The exercise concluded that there needed to be videos instructing people on how to use personal protective equipment (PPE), blood testing for antibodies, and a plan for quarantine vs self-isolation.

Cameron admitted there were failures to follow through on these.

But, the ex-PM said it was not a mistake to update the post-swine flu pandemic plan – which had been the blueprint for the country’s infectious disease response until Covid.

David Cameron when he left Downing Street in 2016
David Cameron when he left Downing Street in 2016
Carl Court via Getty Images

What makes Covid and flu pandemics so different?

Cameron pointed out the main thing the government needed to have focused on, but didn’t, was contagious, asymptomatic transmission – he described this as a “failing”.

Blackwell also called out the ex-PM for not following up on promises he made ahead of a G7 Summit after the Ebola outbreak.

At the time, he said: “As a world we must be far better prepared with better research, more drug development and a faster and more comprehensive approach to how we fight these things when they hit.

“The UK will lead the way but we need a truly global response if we are to face down this threat.”

Was Cameron warned about ‘danger’ of coronaviruses in 2015?

Experts warned the government coronaviruses and other strains would pose a “clear and present danger” back in March 2015, when he was in office.

But, Cameron said he could not “recall a specific conversation” about those details.

Senior counsel for the Scottish Covid bereaved, Claire Mitchell KC also examined Cameron, and suggested that he knew about the risks of a pandemic – and that one was “inevitable” – when he was elected.

Cameron acknowledged in his witness statement that the “overall architecture” in place in the government to deal with large-scale emergencies needed to improve when he got into office.

But, he said he thought his reforms “worked”, and the creation of the Public Health England department helped too, and led to money being spent more wisely.


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