COVID shows need for better information sharing early in pandemics, UK's Javid says

LONDON (Reuters) – A lack of clear information out of China in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic has left the whole world in a worse situation, British health minister Sajid Javid said.

British Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid gives a statement on the Ockenden Report, at the House of Commons, in London, Britain, March 30, 2022. UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS

Javid, speaking before a G7 health ministers conference on Thursday where pandemic preparedness will be discussed, said that better information sharing would help avoid a repeat of the COVID crisis. He suggested that secrecy by China had contributed to a slow global response.

“Had the world had more information about what was happening in China early on, I think we’d all been in a much better place today,” he told Reuters in an interview.

“If COVID had emerged in a European country or the United States and many other countries that are much more open and transparent, I think the world response would have been quicker.”

He said he supported the establishment of a new G20 financial intermediary fund in principle, aimed at supporting pandemic preparedness in the future. But he wanted to see more information to ensure it was “very responsive to the needs of low and middle income countries”.

Britain has reported nearly 180,000 deaths with the third highest per capita death rate from the virus in the G7, behind the United States and Italy, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s

handling of the pandemic has been criticised.

Critics say the government was late to lock down. But it claims credit for a swift vaccination roll-out. England was also one of the first countries to lift restrictions at home. The other home nations followed separate policies.

In contrast, China and Hong Kong have taken a zero-tolerance approach to the virus, a strategy that the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has described as not sustainable given what is now known of the virus.

Javid said that while no country had got everything right, Britain had learned to focus on pharmaceutical defences and not societal restrictions, and trying to live with COVID-19 after high vaccine uptake, had ultimately been vindicated.

“It also shows what a complete fallacy this idea of zero-COVID was, for those countries or places like Hong Kong and China,” he said. “It’s just not sustainable.”

China called the WHO’s comments “irresponsible” and say its policy “puts life first”. Its embassy in London did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Johnson scrapped remaining COVID-19 restrictions in England in February, after high levels of vaccination appeared to prevent a wave of Omicron variant infections from turning into a big increase in deaths.

The government has said it aims to live with COVID through using booster shots and antivirals to protect vulnerable people, though critics say the government is not doing enough to support people with long COVID or who need to shield.

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