For the next pandemic, we need plans not heroes

The coronavirus crisis demanded creativity, quick thinking and sacrifice. Next time, let's just make sure thing are ready beforehand.

For the next pandemic, we need plans not heroes

Elisabeth Braw is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Call it the 21st century’s Dunkirk moment. When COVID-19 hit the U.K., Portobello Road Gin — a high end distillery — quickly retooled to make hand sanitizer for the Metropolitan Police. In Yorkshire, the fashion company Burberry pivoted from tailoring trench coats to churning out hospital gowns, selling them to the British government.

Actions like these were a laudable response to a pandemic few saw coming. But now it’s time for governments to get serious. If the next pandemic finds us depending on isolated improvisations by businesses and individuals, it won’t be a moment for cheering human ingenuity. It will be due to an unforgivable lack of planning.

So far, there are few signs we have learned our lesson, even as memories of the chaotic, deadly first months of the coronavirus crisis start to fade. Part of the problem is the temptation to plan for the last war — because we’re unable to imagine what’s next.

“If someone had said two years ago…that we in Finland would need 1.2 billion pieces of [personal protective equipment] to be able to handle a pandemic, people would have laughed,” said Kimmo Kohvakka, the Finnish Interior Ministry’s Director General for Rescue Services. (The Rescue Services are akin to a national emergency management agency.)

Even though Finland’s National Emergency Supply Agency, NESA, looks after massive reserves, not even the Finns were able to store every product and component the country needed during the worst days of the pandemic. After a good start, Helsinki struggled to secure supplies even for Finland’s relatively small population of 5.5 million.

“You have a good estimate, good planning, good interpretation of threat scenarios,” said Kohvakka. “But the key difficulty is, what level of preparedness do we need?”

If you guess wrong, you pay — in money, lives and chaos. The U.K.’s National Audit Office found that Britain spent 500 percent more for personal protective equipment in the first half of 2020 than the same equipment would have cost in 2019. Supermarkets hardly did better. Uncertainty over the pandemic’s impact on food supplies drove panic buying, leading to shortages of some basic consumer goods. In France, sales of frozen foods rose 63 percent from 2019 to 2020. In Germany sales of packaged foods rose by 56 percent last year.

Some efforts to stockpile of essentials like medicine and food are underway. In March 2020, the EU wisely concluded that a common European stockpile of medical equipment was necessary. The new rescEU stockpile will include masks, ventilators, vaccine and other supplies, with the European Commission footing 90 percent of the bill. U.S. President Joe Biden has issued an executive order to boost American medical stockpiles similarly.

But apart from personal protective equipment and ventilators, what else will countries need in a crisis? Nobody knows, because it’s impossible to predict perfectly which goods and components the next emergency might cut off.

The unpredictable nature of the future means governments will still need private companies to help, by nimbly switching their production lines to whatever’s needed when a crisis strikes. But they’ll need to do that much more efficiently and cheaply than was often the case last spring. “Should something come up that we haven’t been able to predict, it shouldn’t be a reason for political turmoil,” said Kohvakka. “We should have the flexibility to respond even to situations we can’t predict.”

Governments and the private sector could start that collaboration before crisis strikes, by gaming out scenarios together. Crisis rehearsals, carried off the way militaries conduct war games, would help governments and businesses jointly determine where supply chains will strain under different scenarios, and what steps would be needed keep needed necessary equipment on hand.

The Czech Republic has emerged as a pioneer in the area — conducting exercises that imagine different threats, most of them falling in the grey zone between war and peace, and involving private companies in the exercises.

Those exercises can also help Europe become less reliant on rivals. The world’s top maker of facemasks, coveralls and aprons is China — and the Chinese government has shown a willingness to pinch off supply chains when it suits them. Last year, Beijing imposed export restrictions on personal protective equipment at the height of the crisis, causing EU governments to have to pay steep premiums for the supplies. Independently, some Chinese-made supplies sent to European countries including Spain and the Netherlands proved defective.

The time to apply those lessons is now, before the next crisis hits. Relying on ginmakers to equip the police and making surgical scrubs from old rain coats is a great story to tell our grandchildren. It’s not a viable strategy for making sure they stay safe during whatever crises they might face.

Source : Politico EU More   

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Boris Johnson banks on British caution as restrictions lift

The UK prime minister presses ahead with lifting the next round of COVID restrictions from Monday.

Boris Johnson banks on British caution as restrictions lift

LONDON — Boris Johnson is banking on British caution as he pushes ahead with England’s biggest step toward freedom from COVID-19 restrictions yet, despite fears the fast-transmitting Indian variant of the disease is taking hold.

Six people or two households will be allowed to meet indoors from Monday, and those eating and drinking in pubs and restaurants in England will no longer be at the mercy of the unpredictable British weather, with indoor hospitality allowed to reopen.

But in comments released by No. 10 Downing Street ahead of restrictions being eased, the U.K. prime minister warned the public to “take this next step with a heavy dose of caution.”

“I urge everyone to be cautious and take responsibility when enjoying new freedoms today in order to keep the virus at bay,” he added.

Arrival from India

On Sunday, Johnson’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock was unleashed to hammer home the potential risks the new COVID variant, first discovered in India, may pose.

Just over 1,300 cases have so far been identified, and Hancock said it is becoming the dominant strain in some parts of the country, including Bolton and Blackburn. There are also smaller numbers of cases in other parts of the country.

The virus could “spread like wildfire” among unvaccinated groups, he warned. “If it gets out of hand, we will have a very, very large number of cases,” he said. Even with the “high” protection from the vaccine, it was “not absolute” and a very large number of cases would have a “knock-on to hospitalizations” from the disease, he added.

Ministers have been buoyed by “very early data” from Oxford University labs that suggests the U.K.’s vaccines do work against the new version of the disease. But with the U.K. government only hitting its target of giving two-thirds of the population a first vaccine last week, the rollout may not be moving fast enough to avert a wave of hospitalizations.

“We’re in a race between the vaccination program and the virus and this new variant has given the virus some extra legs in that race,” Hancock warned.

People over the age of 35 will be able to book their COVID-19 vaccine this week, and second doses for the most vulnerable are being brought forward to give the most vulnerable maximum protection.

Reverse, reverse

For now, ministers are pushing ahead with plans to ease restrictions.

Johnson is under pressure from his own backbenchers not to veer off course. Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith warned ministers over the weekend to “hold their nerves,” saying a “stop-go, stop-go approach will roll us into the winter with an economic disaster.”

“We have got to be careful, but we are so jittery we are in danger of frightening ourselves into a corner,” he said.

Johnson has, however, already raised the prospect of delaying England’s planned final easing of restrictions in June. Hancock too did not rule out a reversal in the easing of some restrictions when asked about the prospect on Sunday.

“I very much hope not and our goal remains, our strategy remains to take a cautious and irreversible approach to ensure that we are always looking at the data all the way through and, crucially, to use the vaccine to get us out of this pandemic,” he said.

In the meantime, the hope in ministerial circles is that Britons will avoid going over-the-top on Monday, and keep indoor contact to a minimum.

“Outside is safer than inside, so even though you can from tomorrow meet up inside, it’s still better to meet up outside,” Hancock said.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

 

Source : Politico EU More   

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