There would have been no demand for masks, visors or droplet repellent PPE. Mass testing and track and trace systems would have been next to worthless. And there would have been no need for lockdown.
Why? Because an influenza pandemic would have been unstoppable. Just as was shown by Excercise Cygnus in 2016 when ministers simulated a flu pandemic, many tens of thousands would have died but there would have been nothing much to do, other than bury the dead.
This is the narrative pushed by Jeremy Hunt, the former Health Secretary, and Sally Davies, the former chief medical officer, who were responsible for Britain’s pandemic planning, but it will never survive the scrutiny of the public inquiry to come.
As epidemiologists like Prof Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, have pointed out, past pandemic strains of influenza and SARS-CoV-2 are extraordinarily similar. Both are droplet spread, if anything Covid spreads faster than influenza, both cause asymptomatic infections and both have similar infection fatality rates.
“SARS-CoV-2 behaves in most ways like a pandemic influenza strain,” wrote Prof Balloux in a recent Twitter thread. “The only major epidemiological difference between COVID 19 and flu pandemics is the age risk distribution, with influenza being highly dangerous to young children in addition to the elderly. At this stage, COVID 19 is really ‘like pandemic flu’, but not like ‘seasonal endemic flu'[which is much less lethal]”.
Mr Lesh says the real problem in Whitehall was “failure of imagination” and a misjudgment about society’s tolerance for risk.
He said: “The thinking was, as with previous pandemics and Excercise Cygnus, you would let it run through and manage the deaths. They thought people’s tolerance for risk was higher, and that people would also be far less tolerant of social distancing measures.”
“If they looked at the SARS outbreak for example, my guess is they thought we would never accept that sort of mitigation in the west. So in some ways, you could say it was a benign assumption – that western publics would not be willing to make the sacrifices of the relatively more collectivist societies of Asia”.
Group think and western exceptionalism were certainly part of the problem but, as Mr Davies points out it was money too. The Institute for Government’s report on the pandemic finds that “failures in planning and funding cuts meant public services were not well prepared to handle the coronavirus crisis”.
Years of austerity overseen by former chancellor George Osborne saw the NHS protected but the capacity of its sister public health services dramatically cut.
“The Treasury is very effective at controlling spending but has historically been less good at understanding what it is getting for its money”, said Mr Davies.
“Also, the priority of governments since 2010 has been to keep tax as low as they can and – within public spending – to focus on efficiency over resilience.
“Those are perfectly reasonable political judgments to make, but clearly that has come back to bite us.”
Protect yourself and your family by learning about Global Health Security