Monday 8 March 2021 / 10:31 PM Health / Jonathan Ashworth

Labour: Future pandemics are ‘predicted and predictable’ but Tory failure weakened our defences on Covid

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, will today (Tuesday 9 March) highlight how a decade of Conservative failure “weakened our defences” and meant the country went into the coronavirus pandemic woefully unprepared.


In a speech at the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Shadow Health Secretary will warn the UK cannot be complacent about the future, highlighting how under-resourcing, underfunding, and a failure to invest in public health programmes worsened the NHS’s ability to combat Covid.

The UK went into the Covid crisis with 17,000 fewer NHS beds than in 2010, spending on health substantially lower than the historical average and with a health workforce smaller compared to other advanced economies.

Ashworth will warn the country cannot afford to make the same mistakes in future and say we must build health resilience and tackle health inequalities. This should include introducing new statutory duties to plan, audit and invest in pandemic response, alongside obligatory training for ministers in ‘germ-gaming’ – in the same way that the military prepares for conflict scenarios.


The Shadow Health Secretary will outline five steps to strengthen the country’s pandemic resilience:

  1. Pandemic planning through regular ‘germ games’ to prepare for future outbreaks. The Heath Secretary should report annually to Parliament on pandemic preparedness and response.
  2. Subjecting Government pandemic preparedness plans to independent audit with a new OBR-style body looking at the UK’s health resilience.
  3. Improved population health with fully funded public health services and a government-wide ‘health in all policies’ approach to tackle and narrow growing health inequalities. Public health teams should be resourced to deliver local community contact tracing and lead on local containment plans.
  4. The Government, working in partnership with research institutions and the life sciences industry, should prioritise investment in science R&D to develop the vaccines and therapeutics for the future.
  5. The Government must show international leadership on global surveillance to help identify new emerging infectious diseases and tackle the drivers of future pandemics such as biodiversity loss and climate change.


Jonathan Ashworth will say: 

“Being on the back foot has cost lives. Labour would get on the front foot against future threats. Future resilience against pandemics isn’t a choice. It’s a necessity.

“This pandemic has been devastating. Our NHS staff are exhausted, families are fatigued, over 120,000 have died and we’re suffering a deep economic hit.

“Our vaccination programme is the light at the end of the tunnel, but with experts warning we are in an ‘era of pandemics’, this is no time for complacency. Viruses more deadly or contagious than Covid-19, or resistant to antibodies, could emerge. Pandemic threats are real and must be reduced.

“Boris Johnson’s government ignored the warnings and weakened our defences. They left our country vulnerable and exposed when this pandemic hit. Given we know the scale of the risks, it would be unforgivable to be on the back foot again.

“A Labour government would lead from the front on pandemic preparedness, prioritising our health security and forming alliances to make the world a safer place for the future.

“Governments rightly invest in defence planning. Practising for pandemics should be no different.

“Just as military leaders train their forces by ‘war games’, Ministers should regularly ‘germ-game’ to prepare themselves and the country for the next pandemic. And government plans should be independently assessed and reported to Parliament.”