19:00 GMT20 April 2021
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    The yearly drills could prepare the country for "an era of pandemics", but need an independent body to audit them, a member of Labour's shadow cabinet said on Tuesday.

    The UK government should launch "germ games" exercises to prepare for future pandemics, Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said at an event on Tuesday.

    He said in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) that such activities could be modelled on annual military drills and should be audited, allowing Downing Street to "supercharge" future epidemic planning and preparation.

    "Governments rightly invest in defence planning and 'war games'. Practising for pandemics should be no different," he said.

    He also accused government ministers of being "unprepared, complacent and inept" during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

    Academic discussions on threats from new diseases had "rarely surfaced in Westminster", Ashworth added.

    "Years of cuts to public services and austerity left our health and care services lacking the capacity needed when disaster struck," Ashworth said, adding that Conservative budget cuts to public health in the past decade had exacerbated the nation's death toll.

    "COVID hit a population with millions of people in poor health, in poor housing and with job and income insecurity. A healthier, more equal society would have weathered the storms better," he added.

    He also urged the UK to make dramatic changes to its pandemic planning amid threats from climate change and globalisation.

    The National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), the replacement body for Public Health England, needed scrutiny over its COVID-19 plans, he said, adding an agency similar to the Office for Budget Responsibility should conduct the audit.

    "Ministers should 'germ game' annually, to prepare themselves and the country for the next pandemic or infectious outbreak. Never again should we have ministers ignoring the science and learning on the job," he concluded.

    UK Government Response to Ashworth Speech

    A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson hit back at the accusations, stating that the COVID-19 pandemic had "challenged health systems around the world".

    "Our response has always been informed by the latest advice from our scientists and we have taken swift action when new evidence has emerged," the spokesman said.

    Downing Street had established the "largest diagnostics network in UK history" and the National Health Service's (NHS) largest mass vaccination programme, the statement said.

    Nearly half the data sent to the World Health Organisation (WHO) had been from the UK, the spokesman added.

    "We are already looking to our future preparedness, and through the new National Institute for Health Protection we will supercharge our response to health threats, both now and in the future," the spokesman concluded.

    The UK has struggled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but has rolled out a massive Phase II vaccination programme and testing facilities across the country reduce the spread of the virus. To date, the UK has reported more than 4.2 million cases and nearly 125,000 deaths, figures from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine reveal.

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    Tags:
    United Kingdom, Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), Jonathan Ashworth, "inadequate response", pandemic, coronavirus, COVID-19
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