Jeremy Hunt, the chairman of the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, and Health Secretary between 2012-2018, has been vocal in calling for the government to adopt new strategies to combat the new coronavirus. In March, he made the case for the implementation of a lockdown to stifle the spread of Britain’s epidemic.
Hunt has also been an early advocate of extensive testing and contact tracing, in the belief that these methods represent the best means by which to begin phasing out the UK’s national lockdown. Learning from the experiences of countries such as South Korea, he urges that Britain must adopt the strategies which have worked elsewhere. Emulating these successful approaches will help the government to ease the current social restrictions and find a more sustainable way of managing the epidemic.
Now, the former Health Secretary says he is confident that Britain will eventually be able to find a way out of the lockdown. As the country looks towards an exit strategy, the government will have to bring together a range of planned policies, infrastructure, and technologies to make this possible.
As a former Health Secretary, Hunt can expect to figure in the subsequent public inquiry into Britain’s preparedness for a pandemic.
Longer term, what are the lessons to learn about how Britain can manage SARS-like pandemics? From the trials and tragedies of this global health crisis – one that has already cost so many lives and livelihoods – better, more resilient strategies must emerge to protect the UK and the world from future biological threats.
I spoke to Hunt about the challenges ahead.
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Jack Dickens: The UK government says it has increased testing capacity, but it is still struggling to increase the number of tests being carried out. Why is this?
Jeremy Hunt: I think it’s a matter of logistics really. It is just a really big job and it will take time to get it absolutely right and where we want it to be. It’s the right thing to do and there are good signs about where the overall government strategy is headed.
Remember that this type of testing, PCR testing for the virus (the “have you got it” test), is not simple to carry out. It takes great care and must be done accurately.
So hopefully the government is now overcoming these logistical challenges and working to increase testing not only in hospitals, but also in the community.
JD: What about antibody tests? What could the government do to get these developed and rolled out in community testing?
JH: I am sure one of the lessons for all testing is the need to get the private sector involved earlier. This is one of the lessons South Korea learned from the MERS virus. As a result, they have streamlined the processes by which private companies can be mobilised to manufacture and provide tests when they are most needed.
JD: Matt Hancock has now announced that the UK will be seeking to increase the number of testing centres and that the Department of Health and Social Care will also be beginning a large-scale testing study in households across the UK. Is the government likely to fulfil these ambitions?
JH: The good news is that this is now just a logistical challenge. The right strategy is now there and we can continue to build on that. I think if we can get the infrastructure in place and get better and better at carrying out large numbers of tests, we can do it.
This isn’t just about testing either, so it is good to see that the government is also recruiting a force to carry out contact tracing so we can chase up those who have the disease and disrupt chains of infection. The addition of mobile and pop-up testing centres is also important.
This will ultimately be the way we can move from the current lockdown towards a less stifling and more normal way of life. That will be how we can begin phasing out certain restrictions and keep the country’s restaurants, pubs, and cafés open.
JD: What about the contact tracing app the NHS is developing? Are there not legitimate concerns that using personal data for contact tracing will undermine civil liberties?
JH: Of course we are right to be concerned about our civil liberties and we should always be cautious about introducing measures which might compromise these. That said, the reality is that we currently have far more restrictions on our daily lives than in Shanghai or Wuhan. So this clearly isn’t a clear-cut question.
I would suggest that, at all times, it is important to keep as closely in touch with public opinion as possible – and public opinion changes. When Italy first went into full lockdown, many were surprised at the strength of public support for the measures. It is the same in the UK.
So I would say that, where there is public support, such measures are a legitimate way of combatting Covid-19. The challenge comes when we consider the long term impact of the lockdown and the likelihood that it will not enjoy such high levels of public support indefinitely.
This is when I think that we have to take contact tracing and using data seriously. The experience in South Korea and elsewhere shows that this has been an extremely effective way of preventing the need for the tough lockdown restrictions we currently have in the UK.
JD: What could the government and PHE do to address concerns about the personal data used in contact tracing?
JH: What people are right to be concerned about is what is going to happen to their data and personal information after the crisis is over. But there are also solutions to this dilemma. In South Korea, the data used for contact tracing will be purged after the crisis is over. We will I am sure do the same here.
In the UK, we have a strong legal system which is capable of dealing with this situation. So I think if people know that their data will not be kept unnecessarily after the crisis is over, and have confidence that this data is being used responsibly we will be able to manage these concerns without compromising civil liberties. Trust in our legal system and institutions is going to be key in the long term.
JD: Looking ahead to the long term, what has the UK got wrong in its pandemic preparations, and what will future governments have to do in order to better prepare the UK for similar biological threats?
JH: I would say that two things are going to be crucial. Firstly, we need to make sure that we are better prepared to deal with respiratory diseases and SARS-like viruses, like the new coronavirus we’re currently dealing with.
This is where countries like South Korea and Taiwan have got their crisis response spot on – they were very well prepared for this specific threat.
In hindsight, our pandemic preparations in Europe and the US were conditioned to respond to an influenza virus, rather than a SARS-like one. I think recognising this will provide some important lessons moving forwards.
Secondly, and I think this is also very important, we need to think about international institutions. Improving the international response will allow countries to cooperate more effectively and avoid the confusion which compromised the response of governments around the world at the start of the year.
The World Health Organisation has done much better this time than it did with Ebola but it operates by consensus. It cannot be too critical of important governments such as that of China, or indeed Britain or the United States.
What we need are independent, respected voices within the UN or WHO systems who can speak up without fear or favour about global health risks.
Jeremy Hunt MP is the current chairman of the House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee. He served as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care from 2012-2018.