UK response to COVID-19: will society be the same again?
I write on 18th March 2020. Nothing will ever be the same again; a previously unknown virus that crept into our consciousness at the beginning of February has now spread around the world in a matter of weeks crashing economies, spreading anxiety and panic, killing thousands and throwing governments into chaos. What are we to make of it?
‘Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by hitting back’ goes the Grook by the Danish poet Piet Hein. Nowhere can this be more true than in the field of public health and infectious disease, where nature has more tricks up its sleeve than we can imagine. Nevertheless, it seems we are prepared to take our eye off the ball and allow the arrangements for public health to be neglected, fragmented and under-resourced. In this case, the pangolins are coming home to roost.
From the very beginning the UK response to possibly the greatest threat to public health since the Spanish flu of 1918/19 has been inadequate. Initially, Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson didn’t see fit to convene and chair the emergency committee ‘COBRA’, didn’t allow his Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Chris Whitty on to the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme, and generally played down the prospects threatened by a virus that had wreaked such havoc in China. By the time the PM chaired his first COBRA meeting the damage had been done; there had been no effort made to take strategic stock of what was about to unfold, to monitor, screen and test for COVID-19, particularly in the thousands of Brits and others returning from skiing holidays in the heavily affected areas of Italy. Furthermore, in an amazing display of corporate negligence, 3000 Madrid football supporters were allowed to leave a city on virtual lockdown and attend a match at Anfield, carousing the night away in Liverpool and no doubt seeding outbreaks for the weeks ahead . In a heavily laden irony, one of the first Liverpool victims was himself a local consultant, who had been skiing in Italy and had returned to practice for several days before exhibiting symptoms.
As the nightmare scenario evolved the PM, CMO and Chief Scientific Officer proudly proclaimed that they were pursuing a science-led approach to managing what was rapidly emerging as a disaster based on a flawed bio-statistical model. With so little COVID-19 testing going on, COBRA predictions were shown to be inaccurate almost overnight as, during last weekend, it became apparent that the epidemic curve was reaching a doubling of cases and deaths every few days, threatening to bring the NHS to a halt along with a significant increase in deaths.
Less than 24 hours after the PM held his first press conference on the pandemic, the country feels as if it is in meltdown. From laissez-faire to national curfew, we are now faced with trying to suppress a pandemic and subsequently terrified population. At this stage, restoring trust in our politicians and professional leaders is going to be a tough, not least because they have wilfully pursued a narrow technocratic approach to something that a was inevitably going to require social mobilisation. There are estimates that we will require eight times as many critical care beds as are currently available to deal with the need, which brings a sharp dose of reality into academic deliberations. Inevitably, this burden will fall on ordinary men and women who have so far been uninformed beyond the incitement to wash their hands regularly with soap and water.
As I write in self-isolation from my rural study, I am angry and frustrated but simultaneously curious about what transformational change may occur to the way we live as a result of this crisis. Out of this may come a retreat from globalisation and our fetish for frivolous travel; it may instil new patterns of living, working and study, most suited to the internet age; together with a transformation of clinical practice to embrace remote consultation, advice and care. However, before we get to that we must deal with a situation that is bringing the country to a halt and may well last over a year. The light at the end of the tunnel is the thousands of volunteers who have been stepping forward over the past few days to form community-based ‘Citizen COBRAs’ to take charge and respond to the stress of their fellow humans and to restate forcefully that ‘Yes, indeed there is such a thing as Society’.
What are your thoughts? Was the response of the UK Government to the current outbreak of COVID-19 satisfactory? How will it impact future society? Let us know your thoughts in the blog below.