Guest Post

A National Objective on Pandemic Preparedness

We are calling for Labour to declare a national objective to make the UK the best prepared country in the world against future pandemics, and commit to matching the US Government’s spending on pandemic preparedness proportionate to GDP.

March 2023
min read
James Baker

This post sets out Labour for the Long Term's submission to the Labour Party 2023 Policy Forum, responding to question one within the theme ‘Public Services that Work from the Start: Prevention, Early Intervention and Better Public Services for All' - “How can Labour ensure our public health services prevent worsening population health, ensure pandemic preparedness, address widening health inequalities, and offer early intervention programmes that reduce pressure on our communities and other services (in conjunction with wider social policy)?”

A Labour Government can protect our public services and avoid future health inequalities by declaring a national objective to make the UK the best prepared country in the world against future pandemics.

This aligns with mission four of Labour’s Industrial Strategy (‘Building a Resilient Economy’), which emphasises the role that government has in improving resilience to extreme risks.

We propose that Labour commit to match the 0.04% of GDP that the Biden Administration intends to spend annually on pandemic preparedness, which equates to approximately £1.4bn per year. Although a large figure, this is a fraction of the total amount spent by government in combating COVID-19.

This 0.04% of GDP spending on pandemic preparedness should be directed towards:

  • Increased funding for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), enabling joint funding calls focused on pandemic preparedness from the Medical Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Council.
  • Increasing funding for the Liverpool-based Pandemic Institute.
  • Funding to incentivise private R&D spending on pandemic preparedness - including  using the new Advanced Research and Innovation Agency to create inducement prizes, recognition prizes and advanced market commitments, and launching an additional annual £100m Catalyst Competition focused on priority technologies for pandemic preparedness under UKRI.

Why Labour Should Commit to this Objective

1. Political. 88% of the public view disease prevention as a security issue, and one in four view a new global pandemic as a top three risk to Britain’s national security. Labour is currently polling eight points behind the Conservatives on security. Labour could address this by demonstrating decisive action on pandemic preparedness.

The COVID Inquiry public hearings begin in Summer 2023 with Module One focused on preparedness. Senior Conservatives are likely to be interviewed, providing media moments for Labour to demonstrate its leadership on pandemic preparedness.

In addition, Labour has already committed to raising national R&D spending from public and private sources to 3% of GDP (from a current figure of approximately 2.4%). The national objective on pandemic preparedness could be a popular use of some of this new R&D funding.

2. Economic. COVID-19 cost £360bn in additional government borrowing and £250bn in lost gross value added. UK Debt:GDP ratio rose from 80% to 100%. The risk of a further pandemic is rising, and many existing viruses are far deadlier than COVID. A national objective on pandemic preparedness would therefore likely have a significant net positive benefit to the UK economy in the long run, by increasing the UK’s resilience to future pandemics. Previous research on viruses closely related to SARS-COV-2 (which causes COVID) was crucial for developing COVID vaccines within a short time period.

3. Scientific. R&D directed at pandemic preparedness would have additional scientific benefits, alongside increasing the UK’s resilience to future pandemics. For example:

  • mRNA vaccines developed by BioNTech to combat COVID are being explored for use against cancer.
  • Better metagenomic lateral flow technology could allow doctors to immediately identify the bug causing an infection, allowing more specific antibiotics to be given, improving treatment and reducing antibiotic resistance.
  • The development of better vaccine platforms, broad spectrum antivirals and low wavelength light may help prevent and treat other conditions, including flu (annual cost to hospitals: £100m), HIV (annual cost to NHS > £500m), hepatitis C (annual cost of productivity losses: £275m) and hospital-acquired infections (annual cost to hospitals: £774m).

This submission is based on the Labour for the Long Term briefing ‘R&D For Economic Security From Future Pandemics’.

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