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23 April 2020

Why the UK needs to start preparing for the next pandemic

Mask-wearing is one way to build general resilience in all possible futures.

By Stephen Bush

Will the United Kingdom’s four governments become the latest to officially recommend, perhaps even to mandate, mask-wearing in public? Multiple papers report that government advice is on the verge of coming into line with that in France, Germany, Canada, South Korea and that of the World Health Organisation.  

Across the world, governments have been engaging in the same dance: the science on the benefits of mask-wearing is  “finely balanced” up until the point when they become confident that they have sufficient and guaranteed supply of masks to maintain the supply into their healthcare system, at which point, who’d have thought it: it turns out masks are a sensible precaution after all!

It’s not just that mask-wearing in public is a sensible precaution in terms of the spread of most coronaviruses – it’s that we can say with close to 100 per cent confidence that this will not be our last pandemic. Mainstream culture almost seems to have forgotten that HIV-AIDS was a pandemic, while one reason why Hong Kong and South Korea responded quickly – indeed one reason why there is more mask-wearing in general in those countries – is because of their experiences of the Sars and Mers outbreaks respectively. 

Here in the United Kingdom, there’s a danger, in correctly identifying ways that the government’s response to this pandemic fell short, that we incorrectly castigate ministers and officials for having detailed plans in place for a new and deadly influenza. There are good reasons why a new and deadly flu has been Whitehall’s number one fear for successive governments, and that reality won’t change even as we find ways to live with, or, hopefully, to defeat the novel coronavirus. 

Mask-wearing is one way to build general resilience in all possible futures. But right now in the present, it’s another sign that the road that we’re on – one in which, as Chris Whitty told Sky’s Beth Rigby yesterday, a measure of social distancing continues for at least the rest of 2020.

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