In my latest in-depth coronavirus interview, I was joined by Dr David Matthews, a reader in Virology at Bristol University. We discussed the reasons for the government’s failed pandemic response. Matthews argues that what he calls the “flu playbook” prepared us poorly for a coronavirus pandemic. He also makes a powerful case for learning more about viruses in general – this pandemic isn’t the first and won’t be last time a new disease emerges. Next time, we need to be prepared, he tells me.

Alastair Benn: What did SAGE get wrong early on in our pandemic response?

David Matthews: Take the issue of whether or not we should have screened people from flying from Wuhan into the UK early on. The standard answer was: “It’s pointless because if you catch the virus just before you get on the plane, we won’t be able to detect it with our methods for four or five days.” Well, that’s a debatable point. Half of the people who have the virus don’t show any symptoms. So you pick them up. And if it’s so completely pointless to screen people at airports, why did we do it for the Ebola outbreak? At the time, people coming back from West Africa were all screened. Public Health England put a lot of effort into it.

AB: What other mistakes were made in the first stages?

DM: There are large aspects of our response that I did not understand. It only really made sense in the context of a flu pandemic playbook which has been around for years. The impression I got was that they picked it up and started reading from page one and followed the instructions. First of all, this isn’t flu. Secondly, even if you accept that it is like flu, there are still things that I find baffling.