Notes From the Margins…

Coronavirus: I herd it through the grapevine

  • March 13, 2020
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It may not be true that we get the kind of politicians we deserve, but it’s fair to say that if you elect politicians who have spent years inflicting needless economic pain on the most vulnerable members of society, who brought their country to the brink of economic ruin in order to fulfill a nationalist fantasy whose benefits have never been coherently or convincingly explained, then your society is not best-placed to confront the gravest public health emergency of modern times.

Italian doctors have compared the situation they are now facing to a war – a real war, not the fake kind that Tory governments have been waging against the EU for the last four years. Yesterday the government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty predicted that 80 percent of the UK population will contract COVID-19, and that worst-case scenario planning contemplated a death rate of 1 percent, or 500,000 people.

These are staggering figures, and even if we don’t reach them, it’s already clear that we are facing a national and global emergency that requires clear, decisive and courageous leadership.   In this country at least, that is not what we are getting.  Ever since the crisis began, the government has been secretive, opaque, and dangerously vague and ambivalent about what it is doing, how it is doing it, and what it expects the population to do.

At times it seems to be looking at the pandemic through a national security prism, based round Cobra meetings and information filtered through trusted journalists and prime ministerial press conferences that raise more questions than they answer.  For more than a month now, the country has supposedly been in the ‘containment’ phase of a longer-term strategy, aimed at identifying the scale of the virus and flattening the ‘curve’ until the summer.

It has generally been far from clear how the public should participate in this ‘containment.’  Testing and contact-tracing has been weak and sporadic compared with other European countries.  Travelers coming into the country from infection zones have not been tested, public gatherings have not been banned, and government advice appears to be a continuation of libertarian ‘nudge theory’, in which individuals are encouraged, but not coerced, into taking prophylactic measures.

Faced with panic-buying and hoarding that has run down supplies in chemists and supermarkets, and made it more difficult for elderly and disabled people to get the supplies that they need, the government has been largely silent.  There has been no serious attempt to develop a national debate and encourage the kind of national civic mobilisation that is clearly going to be needed, and now testing is actually falling, and the government plans to limit it still further.

No wonder John Ashton, former regional director of Public Health England told Newsnight this week:

I’m tearing my hair out really, with this. I want to know why we are not testing, why we haven’t tested those people coming back from Italy and who are now amongst us. We’ve got a recipe for community spread here.

Ashton compared the government to ’19th century colonials’ playing cricket.  Once again, we can’t be surprised by this. If you’ve spent most of your political career lying, bluffing, manipulating, and deceiving in order to win referendums, gain political power, or drive through a dangerously ill-thought out political project without any concern for the practicalities and details of what was actually involved, you don’t become a statesman or a leader overnight.

So the Johnson government are not the go-to guys in a crisis, unless you have no other choice.  At the moment, don’t.  So we must accept a health secretary who lies about the government’s engagement with supermarkets; a health minister who becomes ill and continues to attend meetings and public gatherings until she is finally diagnosed with COVID-19 nearly five days after first presenting possible symptoms, and a prime minister who appears to be staring into the headlights of the history that is about to run him down.

But yesterday, Johnson announced that we are now moving from the ‘containment’ to the ‘delay’ phase of the government’s strategy.  There are still no bans on public gatherings, or quarantines, because the government believes that the former are counter-productive and that the UK, unlike China, South Korea, Italy, Spain, or Taiwan, will not accept the latter.  Instead we hear that ‘nudge experts’ are still advising the government on how we might moderate our behaviour.

I don’t about you, but I want more than a nudge at this point.  And yesterday Robert Peston – an insider journalist who has often acted as a conduit for Johnson’s messages, suggested one possible reason why we might not be getting it, in an alarming tweet which announced:


It is still astounding to me that Dominic Cummings – an unelected special advisor – can take decisions that affect the life and death of tens of thousands of people, and the idea that this unholy trio might be pursuing ‘herd immunity’ is less than reassuring.  In an article Peston explained that ‘herd immunity… is what happens to a group of people or animals when they develop sufficient antibodies to be resistant to a disease’ and added

The strategy of the British government in minimising the impact of Covid-19 is to allow the virus to pass through the entire population so that we acquire herd immunity, but at a much delayed speed so that those who suffer the most acute symptoms are able to receive the medical support they need, and such that the health service is not overwhelmed and crushed by the sheer number of cases it has to treat at any one time.

Peston suggested that this was the strategy of ‘the government’s experts – the chief medical officer and the chief scientific advisor’ rather than the three horsemen of the apocalypse,  and this appears to be the case. According to the government’s scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance:

Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it. Those are the key things we need to do.

The problem, as Dr Philip Lee observed, in response to Peston’s claim, is that:

Peston later raised doubts about the ‘maverick strategy’ he had described:

There is no question more important for all of us than whether Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock are right that there is no alternative to letting coronavirus run its course in the UK, and to control the peak of the epidemic so that it falls in summer when the NHS may have the capacity to cope

Peston also pointed out that this ‘is not the approach being taken by most other governments, which are banning public events, closing schools, and even – in Italy – most shops, bars and restaurants.’

And last but not least, he outlined some truly alarming possibilities:

First, by simply making the assumption that the whole UK population should in a phased way be exposed to the virus, to develop the antibodies and immunity, we run the risk that the peak of the virus overwhelms the NHS whenever it comes.  It is within the government’s own planning ranges for several hundred thousand sufferers to need in-patient treatment over the course of a few very short weeks – this terrifies doctors.

And if the modelling turns out to be wrong and the peak can’t be managed so precisely as to fall in the summer, rather then in winter, then the hospitals would find themselves in even worse straits (as would all of us).

Also the rest of the world would see the UK’s attempt to acquire herd immunity, as the scientists put it, as massively antisocial, in that it would turn the UK into a country-sized breeding ground for the toxic Covid-19 pathogens, when they are still desperately trying to suppress the numbers getting it.

These are terrifying prospects indeed, though not for everybody. Earlier this month, the Telegraph‘s associate editor Jeremy Warner compared the 1918-19 flu epidemic to the current outbreak, and noted the high death amongst working age people during the former. Warner noted optimistically

This is quite unlikely to occur this time around.  Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionally culling elderly dependents

That is the thing about herds:  they can be ‘culled’.  Criticised for using the c-word, Warner remained ‘unrepentant about the economic point I was trying to make’ and insisted that ‘Any thinning out of those of prime working age is a much bigger supply shock than the same thing among elderly retirees. Obviously, for those affected it is a human tragedy whatever the age, but this is a piece about economics, not the sum of human misery.’

Obviously.  And the question remains, that even if the government would not use terms like ‘culling’ or ‘thinning out’, it may be pursuing a strategy based on speculative science that accepts a massive death toll as an inevitable outcome, and even as collateral damage.

After all, it’s one thing to suggest that the UK ‘herd’ might become immune through mass vaccination program – that is something much of the world aspires to now.  But it’s quite another to deliberately allow the virus to infect as many people as possible at a time when the rest of the world – and our closest neighbors – are doing precisely the opposite.

Like Trump, the government seems to be embarking on this strategy without any international consultation, and without any consideration of what might happen if we allow 67-odd million people to ‘take it on the chin-, to use Johnson’s characteristically sociopathic phrase.

A government that has refused access the EU’s pandemic Early Warning and Response System, that has left the European Medicines Agency, and has spent four years cutting the ties that bind it to its former allies is not going to take much account of the consequences for other countries of creating a nation of pathogen-carriers.  But the rest of us must now digest the incredible reality: that in effect we have all become the laboratory rats of Johnson, Cummings, and Hancock, in an experiment that may make a terrible situation even worse.

Even the Times (paywall) expressed its horror at this outcome in an editorial today:

The consequence of Mr Johnson’s gamble is that many more families will indeed lose loved ones than might have done if the government took the more extreme measures to stem the spread of the disease…If Mr Johnson’s gamble fails and the approach taken by other countries is perceived to have saved more lives, he will pay a heavy political price.

Not as heavy as the rest of us.  This is what Johnson always does: gambles.  But the country has already paid a high enough price for his sprees, and we need to ensure that he pays a political price now.  Because if are going to save each other and ourselves, this is not a government that we can look to for leadership and guidance.

We will have to take our own decisions at a local and community level.  We will need to look after each other, and look to other governments rather than our own, because it is very difficult to believe that the hapless shepherds now leading us towards the cull have much interest in us at all.





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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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