Monkeypox infections are on the rise in the UK. There have already been more than 2,600 reported cases in the country and the number looks set to increase. As the country is still recovering from the devastating impact of Covid, it is essential that the government steps up its efforts to prevent the outbreak from becoming endemic and spreading yet more misery and hardship.
Monkeypox has the potential to negatively impact all of our lives, but the people who are currently suffering the most are men who have sex with men. This is the cohort which has seen the vast majority of infections and is causing a great deal of fear and anxiety in the LGBT+ community.
It was the LGBT+ community that bore the brunt of the AIDS crisis, both in terms of lives lost and the prejudice which came from it being seen as a ‘gay disease’. We risk repeating the mistakes of the past if the government fails to get a grip of the outbreak and allow inaction and stigma to allow the virus to spread across the country. What is more, it will further exacerbate the health inequalities experienced by LGBT+ people.
The most effective way to prevent the outbreak from becoming endemic is to roll out the vaccine to at-risk groups. Currently, people who have attempted to get the vaccine in their local area have been unable to do so and have had to travel to London to receive a jab. The government is set to receive an extra 100,000 vaccines in September, but given that Brighton Pride has just finished and Manchester Pride is happening at the end of August, we risk seeing even more infections before people get the chance to get vaccinated. As such, the government should speed up its procurement of vaccines in order to protect people as soon as possible.
We also need to look at communication. Many people were simply unaware that they could receive a vaccine if they were in a high risk group, and only found out through friends or on social media. Hospitals and clinics need to do a much better job at advertising the availability of vaccines for those most at risk. There should also be better communication to the public about the symptoms of monkeypox and the best ways to reduce the chance of infection.
Once more vaccines are acquired, the government should make it as easy as possible for people to get a jab – just as they did with the Covid vaccines. There should be pop up vaccination centres in areas popular with the LGBT+ community such as Soho and Vauxhall in London and Canal Street in Manchester.
These are all practical solutions which should help the UK deal with the Monkeypox outbreak. However, we know that there will be other outbreaks and pandemics in the future, and the government must act now to ensure we are better prepared.
The most obvious step is to ensure that the UK has a thriving pharmaceutical industry so that new vaccines can be manufactured quickly. The UK is home to some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies and world leading universities, but there are a number of things holding them back. For example, the UK government spends far less as a proportion of GDP on research and development than many other countries. Therefore, increasing the R&D budget would be a good place to start. The government should also look at the tax system in order to incentivise companies to undertake more R&D.
We also need to look at the housing crisis. A failure to build enough homes means that supply has failed to keep up with demand. As such, housing is expensive, especially in and around our major cities. This is particularly a problem for pharmaceutical research as housing is so expensive in and around London, Cambridge, and Oxford where the majority of this research takes place. This massively impacts the productivity of these firms. What is more, our restrictive planning system means there is a shortage of lab space meaning that it is becoming increasingly difficult for scientists to carry out their important research.
A related point is transport. It takes far too long to get from Cambridge to Oxford. Again, this negatively impacts productivity in pharmaceutical firms and universities. The next government should commit to building high speed rail between Cambridge and Oxford and also the building of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc with millions of new homes built in and around London, Cambridge, and Oxford.
Finally, we need to look at international development. Many of these new viruses originate in less economically developed countries or regions. The next government should increase the international development budget and have pandemic prevention as a priority. Not only is helping less economically developed countries prevent new viruses from emerging the right thing to do, it also has the potential to save us a lot of money in the long run.