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Labour tells government to hold regular NHS ‘war-games’ to prepare for future pandemics

Jon Stone
·2-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The government should prepare for future pandemics by holding regular NHS war games across the health service, Labour will say on Tuesday.

In a speech the shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth will accuse the Conservatives of having "weakened our defences" by failing to plan properly for outbreaks like Covid-19.

And he will urge the creation of a new Office for Budget Responsibility-style watchdog to rate ministers' pandemic preparedness in future.

The party says the NHS went into the coronavirus crisis with 17,000 fewer beds than in 2010 and with a smaller health workforce compared to other advanced economies.

The opposition's most eye-catching recommendation is for regular "germ-games" that would test the state's pandemic defences and help identify weak points.

“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," Mr Ashworth is expected to say at the speech to left-wing think-tank IPPR.

“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."

Warning that Boris Johnson’s government "ignored the warnings and weakened our defences", the shadow health secretary will claim that the Tories "left our country vulnerable and exposed when this pandemic hit".

Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan AshworthGetty Images
Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan AshworthGetty Images

"Given we know the scale of the risks, it would be unforgivable to be on the back foot again," he will say.

“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.”

Other recommendations include properly resourcing local public health teams linked to councils, prioritise investment in research and development to work on new vaccines, and showing "international leadership on global surveillance to help identify new emerging infectious diseases".

Reacting to the speech, Pascale Robinson, from the campaign group We Own It, said that "a decade of austerity, underfunding and privatisation" meant that "the NHS was completely ill-equipped to handle a major shock to the system like a pandemic".

"Right from the outset, we saw our NHS being completely overwhelmed and people's lives being needlessly lost as a result. The blame for this sits squarely at the government's door. They've handed massive chunks of the health service to money grabbing private companies and failed to invest in the NHS' future."

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