By the government’s own admission, the UK is moving from a “contain” strategy to a “delay” strategy. This amounts to a clear concession that containment of coronavirus is no longer working (if it ever was). Stronger measures are called for.
It was therefore particularly nonsensical to hear the Prime Minister state on television this morning that “One of the theories is perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease to move through the population without really taking as many draconian measures”. This is what happens when ministers speak without being adequately briefed. Does Mr Johnson have the slightest idea of what “taking it on the chin” actually amounts to? You can’t help but wonder.
Taking it “all in one go” means that health services would be swamped. Think of it as a wave. The same volume of water movement can amount to a slow tide or a sharp tsunami. The volume of water moved may be similar but the effects are very different. If we liken Mr Johnson’s “all in one go” approach to a tsunami, it doesn’t take a genius to work out the consequences. Intensive care facilities at hospitals will swiftly be overloaded. And by ‘overloaded’ I mean that there will be too few beds and too little specialist equipment to give the sickest patients even a fighting chance. We’ve all seen newsreel footage over the years, often during influenza times, showing patients on trolleys in corridors because there were insufficient beds. I experienced this recently myself – brought by ambulance into hospital following a car crash, I spent the first night on a trolley and much of the next day on the same trolley in a corridor. And that was in October, largely before the flu season.
Bear in mind also that coronavirus affects everyone and the government has even gone on record as saying that up to a fifth of the workforce may be off sick at any one time. That includes doctors, nurses and paramedics who are in the vanguard. In fact, with their greater exposure to coronavirus, it may be even higher. Even if the beds were available, they would be useless without the staff. All non-urgent operations and treatments would almost certainly be cancelled. They may have to be anyway. So let’s be under no illusion about what taking it “on the chin” means. It means a significantly higher mortality than would be the case if the timescale could be slowed or delayed. You don’t tell a heavyweight boxer to take it on the chin. You tell them to hang in there and avoid being hit. Then, as your opponent tires, things improve.
Forget taking it “on the chin”. Forget “all in one go”. These are stupid ideas and a testament to why politicians should avoid shooting from the hip.
There is only one approach to coronavirus that stands a chance of keeping the mortality rate down and that is to delay and slow the wave of infection. This is for two reasons. Firstly, a spread-out wave will put less burden on the health service. It’s conceivable that existing or moderately augmented staffing and equipment might just cope. I use the word “cope” loosely since there will still most likely be heavy casualties. But far fewer than with the “all in one go” strategy (if it can be called a strategy). Secondly, the longer we can delay the brunt of the infection wave, the more time that buys us to develop a vaccine. And ultimately a vaccine is our only way of dealing with this illness long-term.
Mr Johnson, of course, has to balance the sometimes conflicting needs of business and public health. Businesses collapsing because of coronavirus (FlyBe is today’s example) are a significant problem and, if you are a businessman, maybe an overwhelming concern. The Draconian measures to which Mr Johnson alludes, and is so keen to avoid, involve cancelling of sporting events, closing theatres, limitations on public transport and so on. These are indeed Draconian measures and the economic consequences will be far-reaching and long-lasting in all probability. However, the consequences of a massive and rapid epidemic of Covid 19, I would argue, will be far greater still, manifested in a hugely increased death toll.
We are, as the WHO has stated, in uncharted territory. But if we know anything at all about this virus, we know that it takes a while to show its hand. And by then, we find ourselves reacting to its moves, chasing shadows if you will. Our best bet, in my view, is to go on the offensive. Quarantine, quarantine and more quarantine. We need to throw everything we have at cutting off the reservoirs of infection. And that means Draconian measures. Not as something to think about over the next few weeks – that’s playing into the virus’s hands. We need to do it now. Acting now will buy us time later.