Treat pandemic preparedness as a national security issue, says former UK PM Tony Blair

By on 01/03/2021
Tony Blair, former British prime minister, wants governments to treat future pandemic preparedness as a national security issue. Credit: Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd

Governments must treat future pandemic preparedness as a “national security” issue, developing shared systems for identifying mutations and new viruses, former UK prime minister Tony Blair said last Friday.

While he acknowledged that governments – including his own – have struggled to address future risks, Blair said leaders should view the challenge much as they do defence.

“It’s right to look at it almost in national security terms – we prepare ourselves, and have the ability to defend ourselves, even though we don’t intend or want that we should have to do that,” Blair told an online event hosted by the London-based Institute for Government (IfG) think tank on Friday. “It’s likely that these types of pathogens will be present and can give rise to pandemics in a way that’s never happened before in our world.”

His comments coincided with the release of a new report on how the UK can better prepare for future pandemics by his non-profit advisory organisation, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Surveillance

The report, The New Necessary, makes several recommendations including that the UK should “treat pre-pandemic preparedness as akin to a military operation, using the best military hardware and software to spot developments”.

This includes “military-grade surveillance” to identify early circulation of a “potential pandemic-inducing virus”, according to the report. “Certain behaviours – such as visiting hospital or purchasing symptom-treating drugs – will increase when a virus arrives,” the report said, “these should trigger early warning measures within government.”

Such monitoring helps identify and isolate early carriers of the virus and “gives researchers more time to develop new treatments, public health organisations space to prepare responses, and individuals the opportunity to minimise their exposure to sources of disease risk,” the report adds.

Alongside this, the UK should lead a push for “a global genomic surveillance database that operates in real time and identifies new strains or viruses, allowing action to be taken at source immediately.”

This sits alongside further recommendations in other areas, including leadership; vaccines; therapeutics, antibodies and antivirals; personal protective equipment; testing; and data.

Governments must build on their success in rapidly developing and distributing vaccines, the report says. “There must be a shared domestic and global aim for vaccine development to move to identification of threat to development and distribution of vaccines within a maximum of 100 days,” the report argues. “The ambition should be to go even faster than this.”

Among the data recommendations, the report says the UK needs cloud-based storage and software to support better data collection and “best in class” security. It also proposes a “unique and persistent identifier for each citizen, enabling people to access their health data and prove their status to others, while at all times protecting their privacy.”

Weighing in on vaccinations

Blair argued that, as we emerge from the pandemic, governments cannot evade responsibility for deciding how and when people should be asked to show proof of vaccination or testing status.

The UK government is currently reviewing whether to introduce a form of “passport”, which could allow vaccinated people to access events or services. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed cautious support for the idea but has yet to announce plans. Meanwhile Israel, for example, has already introduced such a scheme.

Blair said that whether a government institutes such a system or not, members of the public will want to know whether people they are coming into contact with have been vaccinated or tested. Without central coordination, different organisations could end up implementing their own approaches in a haphazard way.

“The common sense of the situation is: it’s going to be a major factor, so put some system around it,” Blair said, “Otherwise you’re just going to find it grows like topsy with no control over it at all.”

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