UK health chiefs believed pandemic was imminent in 1997

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UK health chiefs believed pandemic was imminent in 1997, Bird flu, Northern Ireland, Covid-19

In a report by Sky News who researched archived government papers, UK health chiefs believed a pandemic was imminent back in 1997. The belief led to a contingency plan being drawn that is striking similar to that enacted last year with the appearance of Covid-19.

Back then the doctors who drew up the contingency plan believed that the pandemic would emanate from the Far East in much the same way as it did in 2020.

The UK-wide contingency plan suggested that non-urgent hospital admissions and operations might need to be suspended to free up beds and that school closures, widespread vaccination programmes and restricted global travel would be necessary. In the end the pandemic did not come and the plan did not need to be put into action then.

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What is not known is what happened to the plan and whether it was still a contingency when Covid-19 struck.

The plan is believed to state: “The following conditions co-existing suggest that a pandemic is imminent.”

“The emergence of a new strain of influenza virus which has a marked antigenic shift – a new virus; a high proportion of susceptible people in the population, ie with no immunity to the new virus either from vaccination or from previous infection with a similar virus; evidence that the new virus can spread and cause human disease.”


The plan at the time, the first avian influenza (H5N1) cases in humans had killed a handful of people in Hong Kong, referred to the likelihood that the pandemic will start in Asia before spreading into Europe and beyond.

The document also states: “If this occurs, some warning is likely before a new strain appears in the United Kingdom, although spread may be very rapid”, leading many to question why governments across the world were ill-prepared for the current outbreak.

Reference is also made in the document to opening of China and increased movement of goods and people to and from the country.


Documents seen by Sky News show that the Northern Ireland Ministry of Health in response to the plan, drew up their own plans highlighting that the priority should be securing “supplies of vaccine against the new strain and to immunise as many people as possible” – especially “population groups most at risk of serious illness or death.”

Notably the plan is believed to suggest that the likelihood of stopping the pandemic would be low and that the necessary steps would need to be taken to the slowing of the virus’ spread through confinements, restricted movement and vaccinations.

In what is a case of déjà vu the digging up of government documents that show that the UK health chiefs believed a pandemic was imminent back in 1997.


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