There is so much that could be said about the Government’s chronic mishandling of the pandemic; their failure to act swiftly enough and learn from their mistakes; the obsession with failing, centralised, private-sector-led approaches; the cronyism and chumocracy that have wasted so much money and left so many frontline workers exposed to danger—something that I am seeking to highlight through a cross-party court case; their continued failure to fix our test, trace, isolate and support scheme; their derisory rates and conditions for statutory sick pay, which mean that many simply cannot afford to self-isolate; and the cruel exclusion of over 3 million workers from financial support.
Ten years of austerity, alongside the systematic fragmentation of the NHS, have left our country chronically ill-prepared to cope with the crisis. Existing inequalities have been laid bare and exacerbated. We may all be weathering the same storm, but we are in very different boats. For those reasons and more, I support calls for an independent public inquiry. As vice-chair of the all-party group on coronavirus I was pleased to contribute to our own inquiry, and I commend our report on how to achieve a covid-secure UK.
I want to focus, however, on an issue that has had far less coverage: the fact that, even as we struggle to cope with the pandemic, we continue to sow the seeds for the next one. Constant encroachment on the world’s rainforests and other wild habitats has multiplied the risks of pathogens jumping from humans to animals, together with the global trade in wild animals and animal markets. Some may say that mid-pandemic is not the time to take action to prevent the next one. I would argue that the longer we delay, the more certain those future pandemics will be.
The recent report from the intergovernmental platform on biodiversity could not be more stark. It says that if we continue as we are:
“Future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19”.
It calls for “a seismic shift” from reaction to prevention, noting that the economic cost of pandemics is 100 times more than reducing risk in the first place. Chillingly, it estimates that another 1.7 million undiscovered viruses exist in mammals and birds, of which up to 827,000 could have the ability to infect people.
Crucially, the same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss drive pandemic risk, including the expansion and intensification of agriculture, and unsustainable trade, production and consumption. There are two areas where the Government must act. First, stronger deforestation provisions are needed in the Environment Bill. The due diligence obligation must apply to all unsustainable forest risk commodities; and the whole UK economy, not just supply chains, must be deforestation free by 2030. Secondly, we must stop the finance sector bankrolling deforestation and biodiversity destruction linked to industrial livestock. The Government say that they have put £3 billion towards biodiversity, raided from the aid budget, but that is nothing compared with the £380 billion that has been spent over five years, bankrolled by Barclays, HSBC and others. The Government must act, and do it now.