Senior U.K. Department for International Development officials have admitted the body made mistakes in its response to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, while also suggesting how the department could respond better to similar crises in future.
DfID’s chief scientific adviser and director of research and evidence professor Chris Whitty told a panel of influential members of Parliament that the department had “multiple lessons” to learn as a result of the viral epidemic in Sierra Leone, which has now topped 9,000 cases — more than any other affected country in West Africa.
Whitty's comments came during an evidence session held by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee — known as PAC — which is investigating whether DfID’s response to the ongoing epidemic is providing value-for-money to the U.K. taxpayer.
PAC Chair Margaret Hodge asked Whitty why, during DfID’s years of involvement in Sierra Leone since the end of the country’s civil war, it had not invested more in programs to strengthen the health system.
“There is no doubt that multiple bits of the system messed up over this,” Whitty said. “I don’t think we should blame others. I think the key thing is to say we all own the international community, including the U.K.”
He added that now was not the time to “start throwing stones at one another” in a blame game, but that the World Health Organization and other bodies had “some very serious lessons to learn” from the crisis.
Whitty’s admissions were backed by DfID Permanent Secretary Mark Lowcock, who told the committee only international aid group Médecins Sans Frontières had correctly identified the scale of the Ebola disaster that would unfold.
He said DfID had followed the expectations of “most people,” including WHO, that the outbreak would be localized and quick and easy to control.
“That was a planning assumption that was wrong,” Lowcock said.
In order to prevent another Ebola-style outbreak in the future, Whitty told the committee that strengthening the health system in Sierra Leone’s was the best solution.
“We can try and put together fancy epidemiological systems in Europe and the [United] States, and those are probably useful things to do. But much more important, really, is to get the front line to work more effectively,” he said.
Lowcock said there were three key lessons DfID would focus on after the epidemic had been resolved. The first was to improve early warning systems.
“The world will want WHO, as the director general has acknowledged, to do a much better job on that,” the permanent secretary said.
He suggested the development community should consider what other institutions should exist to complement WHO.
“The U.S. has a lot of institutions in this space and [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], for example, has played an important role,” Lowcock noted. “I think it is a question for us about what use we want to make of our own scientific and technological capability.”
Secondly, he said there should be more national and international response institutions.
“We must do all we can to build up systems in these weak countries, but we do also have to ask ourselves how, next time, we are going to know that we have a larger set of institutions to go to who would be ready much earlier to deploy,” the DfID official suggested.
Finally, Lowcock stated that more research and development needed to be done to discover vaccines, as well as to develop rapid diagnostic tools that could be used in the field to improve testing capabilities.
DfID has so far committed 230 million pounds ($359 million) in direct support to fighting the disease in Sierra Leone. But during the session, Lowcock revealed he expected that figure to rise to 330 million pounds by the end of the first quarter of 2015.
Committee member Stephen Phillips told the DfID representatives that if they had acted more speedily to the outbreak, that figure could have been lower.
Phillips further said DfID had “dropped the ball” by not spending more money on training doctors in the country. When the outbreak began there were only 120 trained doctors and one virologist in Sierra Leone for a population of 6 million, many of whom have now died from the disease.
He told DfID it should have invested more money in retaining trained doctors in the country, after Lowcock explained Sierra Leone was blighted by qualified medics emigrating after completing their studies.
“We are helping to fund people to train, and once they have trained they go overseas where they think they can enjoy a better quality of life,” Phillips said. “But then something happens in the countries from where they originally came, and we have funded them essentially not to be there any longer — and that results in yet further costs to the U.K. taxpayer.”
PAC is yet to announce when it will publish the results of its inquiry.
Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.
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