Boris Johnson warns another pandemic is a 'realistic possibility' this decade

Rebecca Speare-Cole
·3 min read

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Boris Johnson has warned that another pandemic is a “realistic possibility” before 2030 he set out findings of a major foreign policy review.

The prime minister said that infectious disease outbreaks are likely to become more frequent in the next decade as he delivered the Integrated Review Of Security, Defence, Development And Foreign Policy on Tuesday.

The review outlines his geopolitical strategy, including plans to increase the UK’s nuclear stockpile and tilt post-Brexit UK towards the Indo-Pacific region as the world’s “geopolitical and economic centre of gravity” moves east.

But it also warned of the effects of climate change and security threats in the coming years as well as the risk of further global pandemics.

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The document said: “Infectious disease outbreaks are likely to be more frequent to 2030.

“Many will be zoonoses – diseases caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites that spread from animals to humans – as population growth drives the intensification of agriculture and as the loss of habitats increases interaction between humans and animals.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing street to deliver a statement to Parliament on the government's Integrated Review on March 16, 2021. - Britain unveiled plans today to pivot its strategic focus towards Asia, counter Russia and controversially bolster its nuclear stockpile, in one of the biggest overhauls of security, defence and foreign policy since the Cold War era. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Prime minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing street to deliver a statement to parliament on the government's Integrated Review. (Getty Images)

“Another novel pandemic remains a realistic possibility. On current trends, global deaths related to antimicrobial resistance will rise from 700,000 to 20 million per year by 2050.”

The review also warns he risks posed by a more assertive China as well as plans to move away from traditional, and expensive, military hardware.

The document sets out:

  • The UK’s aim to be a “science and tech superpower” by 2030, with the ability to “monitor, protect and defend our interests” in space and ensuring cutting-edge defensive and offensive cyber capabilities.

  • Its commitment to return to spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid “when the fiscal situation allows”.

  • States that tackling climate change and biodiversity loss will be the government’s “number one international priority” in 2021 and beyond.

  • Warnings that the proliferation of chemical and nuclear weapons, advanced conventional weapons and “novel military technologies” will “increase the risk and intensity of conflict”.

  • Warnings that a terrorist group will “likely” launch a successful chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) attack by 2030.

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Johnson has faced pressure from Tory backbenchers to take a tougher line with Beijing, but the language in the review highlights the need for continued co-operation.

In a Commons statement, Johnson said that China will pose a “great challenge for the UK in the next decade."

"But we will also work with China where that is consistent with our values and interests, including building a stronger and positive economic relationship and in addressing climate change,” he said.

He also insisted the UK has led international condemnation of China's "mass detention" of Uighur people in Xinjiang and its actions in Hong Kong.

In terms of defence spending, the review indicated a planned shift from traditional military hardware, noting "the advantages offered by high-tech capabilities may be eroded by affordable, easily-available, low-tech threats such as drones and improvised explosive devices".

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In response to the "evolving security environment", the government will lift a cap on the number of nuclear warheads in the UK arsenal.

By the mid-2020s there had been a commitment that no more than 180 warheads would be held, but the stockpile could now increase to 260.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has been quick to criticise the stockpile plans, claiming there was a "very real risk that our armed forces will be stripped back even further", extending an "era of retreat" for the UK.

He also said there had been "an inconsistent policy" on China under the Tories, with successive administrations "turning a blind eye to human rights abuses while inviting China to help build our infrastructure".

Watch: China 'biggest threat to economic security'