In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when little was known about the virus, the U.K. government briefly considered asking the public to exterminate every cat amid fears that the pets could spread the disease.
Lord Bethell, a former deputy Health Minister from 2020 to 2021, revealed the news Wednesday during an interview with Britain’s Channel 4 News.
“Can you imagine what would have happened if we had wanted to do that?” he added.
The U.K. has some 10.9 million cats, according to the 2022 PDSA Animal Wellbeing report.
The bombshell revelations have sparked astonishment from some on social media, with users sharing images of their own cats and vowing they would have put up a fight. 10 Downing Street’s own feline friend Larry’s unofficial Twitter parody account wrote: “hard not to take this personally.”
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Bethell added in the Channel 4 News interview that there was a moment where evidence suggested there was merit in taking the extraordinary measure but it was investigated and ultimately dismissed.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, animals do not appear to play a significant role in spreading COVID-19 to humans, but cases of animals have been documented and most of them were “infected after contact with people with COVID-19.”
Despite this, some countries have pursued the mass culling of animals or pets in a bid to contain the virus. Hong Kong tested and euthanized some 2,000 hamsters in January 2022, after several tested positive for the virus in the weeks prior. Earlier on in the pandemic, in November 2020, Denmark culled 17 million minks over fears that a mutation could be transferred from minks to humans.
Denmark was the world’s largest mink producer and the decision was found to have no legal justification. The fallout prompted Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to call a snap election in October last year after a member of her ruling coalition government threatened to withdraw their support amid the controversy.
Bethell’s comments to Channel 4 comes a day after more than 100,000 private WhatsApp messages in relation to how former Health Minister Matt Hancock handled the pandemic were leaked by political journalist Isabel Oakeshott to The Telegraph.
Bethell’s revelations came after being asked about the government’s early response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hancock had reportedly entrusted Oakeshott with the messages in the hopes of writing a biography. Hancock has been the subject of numerous personal and professional scandals, culminating in his resignation in June 2021 amid criticism for breaking COVID-19 restrictions. Among the revelations shared by Oakeshott was that Hancock dismissed expert advice to test anyone entering a care home for COVID-19 in the early days of the outbreak. In the first two years of the pandemic, Britain recorded over 40,000 COVID-19 related deaths in care homes.
The leaked messages appear to show Hancock was concerned that expanding testing in care homes could “get in the way” of his personal target of 100,000 COVID-19 tests per day.
Hancock has denied ignoring expert advice and is reportedly considering legal action over the claims made in the publication.
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