This is the narrative pushed by Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, and Sally Davies, the former chief medical officer, who were responsible for planning for the UK pandemic, but it will never survive the scrutiny of the upcoming public inquiry.
As epidemiologists such as Professor François Balloux, director of the Institute of Genetics at University College London have pointed out, the past pandemic strains of influenza and SARS-CoV-2 are extraordinarily similar. Both are spread by droplets, if something Covid spreads faster than the flu, both cause asymptomatic infections and both have similar infection death rates.
“SARS-CoV-2 behaves like a pandemic strain of influenza in a number of ways,” explains Professor Balloux. “The only major epidemiological difference between COVID19 and influenza pandemics is the distribution of risk by age, with influenza being very dangerous for young children in addition to the elderly. At this point, COVID 19 is really “like pandemic flu”, but not like “seasonal endemic flu”[which is much less lethal]».
Mr Lesh says the real problem in Whitehall was “failure of the imagination” and an error in judgment about the risk tolerance of modern society.
He said: “The thought was, as with previous pandemics and Excercise Cygnus, you would let him go through and deal with the deaths. They believed that people’s tolerance for risk was higher and that people would also be much less tolerant of social distancing measures.
“If they looked at the SARS outbreak for example, I guess they thought we would never agree to that kind of mitigation in the West. So in some ways you could say that was a benign assumption – that Western audiences would not be willing to make the sacrifices of relatively more collectivist societies in Asia.
Group thinking and Western exceptionalism were part of the problem but, as Davies points out, it was also money. The Institute of Government’s report on the pandemic finds that “the funding cuts meant that utilities were not well prepared to handle the coronavirus crisis.”
Years of austerity overseen by former Chancellor George Osborne saw the NHS protected, but the capacity of its sisterly public health services has been drastically reduced.
“The treasury is very good at controlling spending, but has always been less good at figuring out what it is getting for its money,” Davies said.
“In addition, governments’ priority since 2010 has been to tax as low as possible and, in public spending, to focus on efficiency rather than resilience. These are perfectly reasonable political judgments to make, but it is clear that it has bitten us.