Health & Social Care Committee: Lessons learned from the pandemic

Updated: Apr 28

The Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee held its second evidence session of the week as part of its joint inquiry into lessons learnt from the pandemic response. Purpose of the session

Chaired by Greg Clark MP—Chair of the Science and Technology Committee—the session focused on Government strategy for pandemic preparedness and the lessons learned from Exercise Cygnus.

The session also explored cross-Government arrangements and internal structures for contingency planning.


Panel one

  • Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England (2010–2019)

  • Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser (2013–17)

Panel two

  • Sir Oliver Letwin, Cabinet Office Minister (2010–2016)

  • Lord Mark Sedwill, Cabinet Secretary (2018–2020)

Dean Russell Q1: This is a question about the breadth of the preparation with regard to the impact on wider society and how much that was considered. For example with schools, if this had been a flu-based pandemic, I imagine schools would have been hit even harder. Children and teachers would have been having it. Similarly, in businesses and the workplaces, there would be lots more younger people off sick and not just isolating. I am interested to get your views on how much the wider impacts of these things are looked into. A lot of the issues this year have been behavioural, and there have been impacts on daily life beyond the coronavirus pandemic itself.

Professor Dame Sally Davies: I think what you are bringing up is not only science but our priorities. Should our priorities be the young and going to school or whatever? How you respond depends on those priorities. For flu, and I am sure Sir Mark will come back to this, there was a lot of modelling and debate about whether to close schools or not. Last time I was aware of it, back in 2016, we decided that we would not close schools even though it would transmit very quickly. In Covid, we did not know what was happening in schools, and, therefore, it was a perfectly reasonable response until you discover that it is not transmitting that much in schools, and our priority has to be the young, their education and getting them jobs.

Sir Mark Walport: The challenge is that the vulnerability of different parts of the population varies according to the infection. If you go back to the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more people than were killed in the first world war, the young turned out to be particularly vulnerable and the elderly were less vulnerable, possibly because they had pre-existing immunity to similar influenza infections from the past. You have to work it out with each particular virus. In many cases, the young are very potent sources of transmission. In the case of this coronavirus, it turns out that adolescents and older children are as susceptible as adults to infection, although not to the adverse effects of the infection. Very young children seem to be infected rather less. You learn with every different infection.

In a sense, you have to do scenario planning. In other words, picking up a point that Sally made, if you limit yourself when you plan scenarios to one particular infection, you will work on a particular set of vulnerabilities. One should probably have a menu of different viral or other infection scenarios. Sally’s point about antimicrobial resistance is important, because previously there have been pandemics, like the black 17 death, which were bacterial rather than viral. At the moment, the likelihood of a bacterial pandemic is much lower, but with antimicrobial resistance it could go up. Streptococcal disease, which was never pandemic as such but caused a lot of deaths in earlier generations, could come back as a problem. In a nutshell, it is about having different scenarios to plan against.

Dean Russell Q2: In terms of the preparedness for this year, was preparation in place for different scenarios, for schools and so on, on the different potential pandemics that were possible? I appreciate that coronavirus was novel, but there were forms of it that had occurred previously in other areas. Was the preparation in place at the end of last year for what happened this year, in broad terms?

Professor Dame Sally Davies: No; we prepared for flu.