2020 – return to sender.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I will be glad to see the back of 2020. Normally when it reaches the end of the year I find myself in reflective post-Christmas bonhomie, buoyed by the occasional glass of sherry and mince pie. Through the rose tinted optics of hindsight I find myself mulling over the year and its many joys. A warm fire, a Val Doonican jumper and grandad slippers and the illusion is complete. Gosh, is that snow outside?

Not this year. Not in 2020.

If ever there was a year to see the back of, this is it. Australian bushfires to start with. Huge news story in any other year but this. Climate change as a global emergency. Wasn’t that enough to be going on with? We are in a full tilt race to save the planet. A full-time job in its own you might think. But no, the media circus moves on. And what happened to little Greta? Nowhere to be seen. Or, more accurately I think, avoided by the press who have other fish to fry. Never mind the planet frying. As far as I’m concerned that’s high enough on the apocalypse-o-meter

But apparently not.

You can be forgiven for missing it but there it was, some tiny little news item, buried in between the Wichita under 30s Bake off challenge and the list of unpaid parking tickets. Something about a virus crossing over from wild animals to man. Hardly a news item really. Within a month there was cause for concern in China. Another month and the rest of the world was beginning to wake up to the defining news story of the year. Suddenly attention was focused on China and its food markets. And before you know it, it is ‘traced’ to bats. Specifically people eating bats. I ask you.

For goodness sake what kind of a person eats bats? There are no bat recipes, no bat cookbooks and not a single Internet bat bistro devoted to the bat gourmet.

Perhaps I’m mistaken. Perhaps, in the Far East, the Burger King Bat Super Whopper is competing for the stomachs and minds of the Chinese with the McDonald’s Big Bat combo platter?

And to follow? The bat pavlova, bat cobbler, sorbet de bat? And then there are the canapés – bat goujons, pate de bat, bat fricassee, bats on horseback? No, the reason there are no bat recipes is because we are not meant to eat them. It’s not discrimination. It’s not being Battist. It’s just common sense. Besides, they’re very crunchy.

Back in China, some clown ignores common sense and tucks into the bat sushi platter. All well and good (even if rather disgusting). Unfortunately his particular selection of choice bat cuts contains a previously unknown respiratory virus.

Viruses don’t normally cross species barriers. They snuggle up to the same species. But when they do cross species, they do so with a vengeance. Before you know it, we have an epidemic in China. It turns out to be such a hit that other adjacent countries take it as well. Another couple of weeks and it’s a pandemic. Short for panic epidemic. (No it isn’t but it sounds good). People start filling hospital beds. Then they start dying. Some wear face masks, some don’t. Panic breeds more panic. World leaders, used to fluffing news about a new national traffic management scheme, or a regional document archive plough their collective ostrich heads into the sand. Then there is a vaccine. Then there are two. Then more. Then the virus hits the gas pedal, reluctant to be outdone by mere humans. A feeling of déjà vu? Wait till the third wave.

And to think that we were concerned about forest fires in January. At the end of December, we are virtually praying for forest fires – to kill the virus or kill the news stories.

Dear Sir, my year 2020 is faulty. Can I have my money back please.

A job for the army

As we know, the UK government has pledged to inoculate the population, starting with the Pfizer vaccine. On the face of it tremendous news but on closer examination perhaps a more challenging.   Let’s do some basic maths.

There are some 60 million people in the country. Let us estimate, for the sake of argument, that 10 million will choose not to have the vaccine for whatever reason. A mistake I feel but I’m not going to go into the folly of their reasoning at this point. That’s a job for another time.

So 50 million people need to be vaccinated. Inoculation is a two jab process. So we will need 100 million jabs collectively. And these must be kept at -80° C until used. That’s colder than Antarctica during a cold snap. Now hospitals have those kind of freezers but GPs generally do not. So already we have a major logistical problem and we’re not even out of the car park yet. But let’s put that aside. Let’s wave a magic wand and pretend that can be resolved.

100 million jabs to be given. And in what kind of timeframe? Well obviously it can’t be too long – the longer we take the greater the risk of mutation to a resistant strain. So let’s say complete inoculation of the population in just over three months (or 84 to 93 days). Let’s be generous again and round that up to a hundred.

In simple terms we need to perform 100 million inoculations in 100 days. Even I can do that calculation in my head. We have to deliver 1 million jabs per day. That’s every day including weekends.

If I understand this correctly (and the government is a mite evasive about this), we have 70 inoculation venues around the UK. So each vaccination suite must jab a little over 14,000 people every day. Let’s say they are open 10 hours every day (I do like to simplify the mathematics where possible). That means each centre must inoculate 1400 every hour, churning them out every 2.6 seconds. The duration of a Formula One Grand Prix pitstop.

Now think for a moment about when you had your flu jab. Mine took considerably longer than 2.6 seconds. After a quick swab with alcohol, the injection itself and the collection and disposal of the injection paraphernalia into a sharps bin, the procedure took probably two minutes. Again only a ballpark figure. So one nurse takes 120 seconds.

In order for the centres to achieve an inoculation every 2.6 seconds, each will require 69.23 syringe wielding nurses, more if they want tea breaks and a lunch hour. That’s a big ask. Already this is beginning to look like a Carry On film. Not an impossible challenge but certainly daunting. Nationally that’s 4846.1 nurses doing injections and nothing but injections for three months. Repetitive work.

Unless the health service has nearly 5000 spare nurses available for three months to do injections morning till night time for three months, we need to recognise that this will all take a while.

If it weren’t for the fact that it was a global pandemic, we might recruit from other countries – obviously not Europe in the present climate of animosity, but elsewhere perhaps. There must be some countries we haven’t yet antagonised. But either way, the numbers don’t stack up. We are not going to be able to inoculate the UK population in three months.

Of course the government may not be thinking in terms of three months. I suspect, if truth be told, that they are not thinking in terms of any particular timeframe. But they should be. Because every day that passes poses an additional risk of mutation to a more unpleasant and resistant strain. There is no time to lose. The south-east of England is currently under attack from a new strain. Not necessarily more unpleasant (at time of writing) but seemingly more infectious.

The website about vaccination against Covid 19 makes it very clear that we should stay at home and wait to be called. We should not phone our doctors and harass them about our position in the queue. No, it’s a case of don’t call us, we will call you. And there’s probably no need for you to sit staring at the telephone waiting for it to ring. It’s not going to be this week. Or next week or the week after.

I don’t believe it’s beyond this government to find a solution. That is after all why we elect them – to find solutions. We need an immediate workforce of at least 5000 who can be deployed round the country to get the job done. While the government scratches its collective heads, the answer is staring us in the face. This is a job for the armed services. We are fighting a war on the virus so it’s entirely appropriate that the army takes a role here. Give basic training on how to do injections – I mean how difficult can it be – and then it is turn the squaddies loose. These are not idiots. Anyone who can dismantle and reassemble a semiautomatic weapon inside a minute is not going to balk at filling and discharging syringes. And, whatever one thinks about the role of the army in modern life, their grasp of logistics is top-notch. Getting people to places in the right numbers, with a minimum of fuss and in the shortest possible time is what they do best. That is the nature of warfare after all. Three months to save the country? I think they would relish the challenge and there are enough of them.

I can almost see Lord Kitchener staring back at us from the recruitment posters. This could be their finest hour.

Matt Hancock is proud

I for one listened to Matt Hancock’s announcement of the UK approval of Pfizer’s vaccine against Covid 19 with a measure of discomfort. Yes, the announcement is good news. We can now start inoculating the population against this nasty little munchkin (the virus not the health minister). We should be happy and we are. But the message of positivity was delivered with chest beating pride that was uncomfortable to watch to say the least.

The government is quick to claim success and slow to acknowledge failure. Hancock was, in his own words proud to be able to deliver this message. But let’s put this in context. The vaccine was developed by a pharmaceutical multinational and is available to all countries. Not just Britain. Britain played no special part in its development. The sole source of Hancock’s pride was the fact that the UK regulators had seen fit to give the vaccine the go-ahead a few days ahead of those in other countries. That’s it. That’s all it takes to puff up the plumage of the average Cabinet minister.

The proud announcement was, of course, nothing more than an act of political showboating, timed to demonstrate how new post-Brexit UK makes its own decisions. Ever the opportunist, Jacob Rees Mogg even crawled out from under his rock for long enough to claim that such a decision would previously have been impossible for a Britain strangled by European red tape.

Perhaps at this moment of needless triumphalism we should reflect on the UK’s performance in this pandemic as today we hit the less attractive pandemic milestone of 60,000 deaths. I don’t see Hancock or Rees Mogg waving the union flag on that. Perhaps we should acknowledge that the UK death toll per capita is the eighth highest in the world (out of 220 countries), higher than the US with its “it will magically go away one day” healthcare policy. Higher than Sweden with its “we trust the people to do the right thing” hands off approach.

And what is the government’s latest health tip? Play charades instead of Cluedo. Yes, really. Very well then – I’ll get the butler to fetch the cucumber sandwiches, Madeira and Dundee cake shall I?

Of course this isn’t a game. We are playing with people’s lives and we should reflect on the fact that many more people have died in the UK than should have done when you take into account the facilities available in our health service. So my advice to Mr Hancock would be to put the flag down. Gestures of relief would be more appropriate.

So Britain is first to license the vaccine. Other countries will take their time. Maybe the UK regulators have been pressured to produce a decision more rapidly than they should. Maybe not. Maybe they simply work harder and better than their European cousins. It really doesn’t matter – the end result is the same. But please drop the political windowdressing and puerile flag-waving. And a little less of the false pride. Because we all know what pride comes before.