I recently decided to patch a rather large lacuna in my reading history by reading first Les Misérables and then War and Peace. It did not take me long to tick off Victor Hugo’s monster work because I literally hurled it from me in disgust less than half-way through. Quite simply there is no way this book would find a publisher in the 21st century, furnishing us with an interesting take on 19th century tastes.
First, it is cloyingly, mawkishly sentimental, its leading characters one-dimensional cartoon figures embodying bravery, nobility of soul, sanctity, venality, outright evil or some other characteristic. At least one of Hugo’s themes, that grinding poverty and unrelenting struggle can ennoble rather than debase a person of the right character as depicted in the figures of Marius and others I find somewhat offensive and certainly condescending coming from a figure as grand as Victor Hugo. It cries out under the weight of verbiage excessive to the point of bloat, all the more of a shame for the fact that the language is often little short of wonderful. No character, even the most peripheral, is allowed to pass under our eyes without being supplied with a complete biography. In order to introduce two characters who will play important roles later on he does not give us just one or two scenes on a battlefield – he takes us blow by blow through the entire battle of Waterloo! Interesting enough, sure, but we are waiting for something to happen and so what should be fascinating becomes simply annoying.
In the section dealing with the Friends of the ABC when the writer wishes us to grasp a character’s political and philosophical viewpoint he does not just let him utter a few indicative sentences. No – he lets the man rant on for pages, teaching us nothing and adding yet another tree to the forest of roadblocks that slow the narrative to a crawl. Indeed he regularly brings the story to a complete standstill while he blathers on about the soul and “Infinity”, constantly repeating and reworking his celestial themes.
Furthermore, and in defiance of the basic rules of the novel, he thinks nothing of introducing the most outrageous coincidences to advance the story. When Valjean flees through Paris, surrounded and trapped by the posse led by his nemesis Javert, he takes refuge in a garden. And who is the gardener? None other than Fauchelevant, the poor cart driver whose life Valjean saved back in Montreuil and subsequently found a job working in this very garden. He could have ameliorated if not solved this problem by simply placing a sign over a gate or some similar mechanism to provide information and motivation to his hero. It would still have been a stretch but it would have given us something to hang credence on. But no. He just does not care as he blithely litters the narrative with the unlikely and the implausible. Another instance: Fantine, poor, poor Fantine and her little daughter Cosette. We are told that Tholomyès caroused for some considerable time with Fantine and her friends while apparently unaware that he had fathered Cosette. How Fantine got through pregnancy and birth while conducting this relationship is a question Hugo leaves unanswered. Certainly the character of Tholomyès Hugo draws for us would have dropped Fantine like a hot rock on discovering her pregnancy. It gets worse: during the whole grim arc of Fantine’s downfall our sympathy for her is fatally undermined by the evident fact that she is as thick as mince and hopelessly gullible, making every wrong decision available to her. Not tricky choices, either. She consistently avoids doing the obvious best thing under the circumstances, starting with leaving Paris in the first place. I ended up wanting to shout at her rather than weep for her.
So much for Les Misérables. Fingers crossed for Tolstoy.
Question: Why is Covid 19 so infectious? Answer, because of the so-called ‘furin-like cleavage site’ on the spike. This consists of an amino acid sequence grouped arginine-arginine-alanine-arganine. When this contacts the mucus membrane of the human respiratory system it basically burns a hole in it and the virus is in. This is not present in the naturally evolved version of the virus which killed three shovellers of horseshoe bat guano who died from it but gave it to no-one. You virtually had to be swimming in it for it to infect you. The new, deadly spike was, according to a professor at National Taiwan University, Fang Chi-tai “unlikely to have four amino acids added all at once.” Natural mutations were smaller and more haphazard, he argued. “From an academic point of view, it is indeed possible that the amino acids were added to COVID-19 in the lab by humans.”
When his talk was publicised he recanted and the university removed it from its server for “certain reasons”. Academics who advance the thesis that Covid-19 could have been the result of a ‘gain of function’ experiment in China are likely to see their careers stall and lose grants, in spite of the fact that the Wuhan lab of world-wide fame was involved in gain of function experiments on horseshoe bat coronaviruses.
Consider this: the nearest horseshoe bats to Wuhan are seven hundred miles away. They are not, as we were first given to believe, sold in the Wuhan wet market. So for the natural origin theory to be true, the virus had to mutate in a bat population, infect someone and then instantly die out because no-one else in the vicinity caught it at that point. Then the infected person had to somehow get to Wuhan without spreading it along the way. How likely is that? But Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute, whom Scientific American dubbed ‘the bat woman’, regularly harvests viruses from that distance bat colony and transports them to her Wuhan lab.
Looked at objectively, the human-made hypothesis seems much more probable, but no-one wants to say so, indeed the chorus of denial is loud and global. Why all the academic fear?
Because the world is scared of China. Our politicians bend over backwards to avoid offending The Middle Kingdom, and with good reason. Although China’s fall to the condition of a broken victim state, walked all over first by Western Powers and then Japan in the two hundred years prior to the mid-20th Century had more to do with its inward-looking sclerotic administration than external influences, Chinese global policy is almost openly vengeful. The country lost its face and it wants it back. If a minor South American country, for instance, engaged in world-wide open theft of intellectual property and imprisoned and oppressed whole sectors of its ethnic minorities it would at the very least be ostracised on the world stage and quite likely corrected by force. Not China. No-one wants to step on the dragon’s tail, especially when that dragon produces so much of the manufactured products the rest of the world runs on. Not when it is a huge and growing market for almost every country’s products.
This is changing. Slowly the democratic powers are starting to face the fact that Russia and China are becoming increasingly dangerous and sooner or later we are going to have to do something about it. Preferably later, much later. As our attitude becomes more realistic the so-called ‘lab-leak hypothesis’ is starting to see some air. Note the nomenclature ‘lab-leak’. No-one except those who in the next breath will tell you about Bill Gates’ microchip in the vaccine will suggest that China might, just might, have deliberately released the virus. No scientist or politician who wants to keep their job will say such a thing. I have not seen the possibility mooted at all in any medium. Unfortunately, we have to at least consider it. If they did it, we need to know. Time to wheel in the old Latin tag Cui bono? It means ‘Who won something?’or more literally ‘For the good of whom?’ and is a time-honoured way of looking into a complex or obscure misdeed.
Under Xi Jinping, who is looking more like Mao Zedong every day, China wants grow stronger by weakening the rest. Look at its artificial islands in the South China Sea which it now claims as sovereign territory – military territory. A vast fleet of its factory ships plunder the oceans at the expense of everyone else and the planet. Now imagine how the Central Committee might have reacted to a proposal to release a killer respiratory virus that would cripple democratic economies around the world but inflict only minor damage on a country that did not have to bother with personal freedoms, that was able to track and trace with very high efficiency because of the absence of concern for individual liberties, that could throw a cordon around a whole city and enforce it, that could mass-disinfect whole suburbs. Can you see them nodding and smiling? I certainly can.
Covid-19 has been a body blow to the economies of countries that China smiles at but considers enemies, as well as serving as a demonstration to their own people that their system is inherently stronger and less vulnerable than the effete democracies of the West. If it was an accident, it is one that has served Xi Jinping’s agenda fulsomely. Cui bono? China.
Consider this, for a closer. When the outbreak occurred, Shi Zhengli, lead researcher on horseshoe bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan lab immediately suspected that the outbreak was the result of a leak of something made in her lab. She describes how, terrified, she “checked her records and found no exact matches.” Phew.
Well, no, actually. No ‘exact’ matches, for a start. So one of her colleagues might have given the virus the last tweak, acting under the orders of the most powerful people in the institute, which would not be the head scientist, Zhengli. Not in China. The real head honchos would be the party cadres charged with keeping everyone in line, as in every sensitive organisation in that country. Or, more simply, they told her what to say and she said it.
I believe, for reasons which seem to me obvious, that Covid 19 was produced in the Wuhan Institute. I am not saying and do not necessarily believe that the Chinese government deliberately released the virus. One argument against that is the location – a covert release for the purposes I suppose would have made more sense in the vicinity of the bat population. Deliberate release is simply a possibility we need to keep in mind and we sure as hell need to be prepared for the next one.
The indefatigable George Monbiot has run an article describing how an elderly acquaintance was scammed by a dodgy damp-proofing rort (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/12/laws-protect-scams-enforcement-gutted) and how, in spite of having all the evidence in hand, he was unable to provoke any action by the relevant trading standards authority. The dedicated police unit, Action Fraud he found to be similarly inert. In fact, in spite of fraud being by far the worst crime problem facing the community, funding for the bodies responsible for bringing scammers to justice has been cut so badly in recent years that the crooks have a virtually free run. The police have even quantified it: lose less than £100,000 and you’re on your own.
It got me wondering. It can’t just be about saving money – the public are much more concerned about fraud than they are about hate speech, but at last count there were six hundred staff working the specialised police hate crimes unit. This government has flung austerity out the window, spending money like water, but in yesterday’s Queen’s speech not a word about what is probably the worst crime wave ever to affect the general public.
It was in the first paragraph of Monbiot’s piece that I found what may be a clue. The scammer had a card machine with him and his victim paid up, in full, immediately. What impunity, to put the money straight into his own bank account. But what about that money? It must have been thousands of pounds, sitting in a bank account, doing nothing, frugally hoarded by the anxious pensioner. Where would it be now, had not Monbiot galloped in on his white horse and monstered the guy into a refund? Perhaps to an installment on the guy’s new electric Jag. Or a series of nights out on the town, nothing but the best for our scammer and his pals. Every pound of it clipped for the government’s share in VAT. Assuming the man paid his taxes, more of it off to the exchequer at the end of the year.
Can it be that the Tories actually think that this epidemic of defrauding pensioners is a good thing? I mean, we are not Bhutan. Our national accounts don’t have a column for communal happiness. We don’t have to look far to discern this government’s disregard for human misery. How many billions, I wonder, have all those millions of my coevals got salted away awaiting the stroke of a bank card across the fraudsters’ machines? Awaiting their liberation into the free-spending economy? Last year it totalled £193 billion. That’s right – £193,000,000,000. That is a massively significant amount of freed-up cash.
When this first occurred to me I thought of it as a piece of whimsy but having realised the scale and consequences I’m not so sure. Coming here from New Zealand I was struck by the simply appalling absence of consumer protections at every level. The BBC has a couple of astonishingly tame consumer issues radio shows, in which the smiling, agreeable presenters regularly let companies off the hook by not only parroting “Nobody from Company X was available to come on the programme” but actually then reading their press releases for them in which they invariably declare, unchallenged, that it was all just a regrettable mistake and won’t happen again. If the company reimburses the single individual it has ripped off the presenters seem to regard that as a happy outcome, leaving the company to go on doing the same thing to thousands of its customers. When I was on the air in NZ, balance was achieved in such situations by offering both sides of a conflict space on the programme to put their viewpoint. If they declined, then that viewpoint did not get put. End of. They usually showed up. Not here. Why should they when they can have the consumers’ champion do their work for them?
The UK is a rip-off artist’s paradise and absolutely nothing is being done about it. Well, it gets the money going round, doesn’t it? Got to be a good thing …
It’s not negligent. It’s deliberate. And, as Monbiot points out, whom do those angry victims vote for? The party that beats the law ‘n order drum loudest – the Tories, the very charmers letting the crooks off the hook.
Please. Someone point out the flaws in the following argument. I desperately want to be wrong this time.
England’s economy is in the toilet because of coronavirus and a firm right hand is about to reach up out of the bowl and pull the chain for ever when the United Kingdom flushes itself out of the European Union without any agreement in place that might protect at least some of its all-important trade with the continent.
It is not hard to sheet this home to the final coming to roost of the karma of British colonialism, because the connection seems to me to be remarkably direct.
Why did so many people vote for Brexit in the face of every qualified agency warning that the economic consequences would be catastrophic? There are several threads to it but by far the prevailing influence was British exceptionalism. The idea, rooted in the public soul over two centuries of owning half the world, that Britain is the greatest country in the world. Great Britain. It’s even written into the name.
We saw its mischief at work throughout February and March this year in the confident assertion from on high that the UK was the best-prepared country in the world to deal with coronavirus. Not only was this very quickly shown to be almost the opposite of the truth, there was at the time not only no evidence to support the claim but plenty of information in the public domain showing how woefully ill-prepared the country actually was. The hubristic boast was entirely based on the old colonial belief that Britain was the best at everything so it followed automatically that the UK must be the best prepared for any eventuality, including a viral pandemic. Some 60,000 dead Britons later, the Prime Minister still blithely characterises the country’s response to the virus as ‘world-beating’, very significantly one of his favourite terms. That phrase is a conscious, direct appeal to British exceptionalism.
The other karmic thread is more obviously traceable cause and effect. From the late 60s onwards a fateful demographic trend kicked off, supported by well-intentioned laws mandating that a broken marriage should not be the economic disaster for mother and children that it had always been. This was eventually followed by Thatcher’s restructuring that threw millions out of their traditional unskilled jobs, creating poverty, stress and millions of broken marriages and single-mother pregnancies. All this gave an extra boost to the almost universal fact that the less education you have the more children you are likely to have. Furthermore those children were now more likely to have only one parent – the uneducated mother – and to receive minimal education in turn. For decades a girl failing at school, with few prospects in the unskilled labour market, could make the choice to become a serial solo mum supported by the state. Out they popped, one after the other. And it was not just solo mums. Educated, aspirational people tend to count the cost in time, money and opportunity of having a child and ration themselves accordingly. The less-educated, also more likely to have grown up in a larger family, make no such calculation. So, while the ever-increasingly-busy middle classes managed to reproduce at well below the rate of replacement, shrinking in numbers year on year, the uneducated classes grew and grew. These are of course sweeping generalisations but in the field of demographics generalisations not only have validity, they rule.
Ironically the only counter-trend was the arrival of thousands of highly aspirational low-skilled immigrants who made damn sure their children mobilised upwards. But it has not been enough to eclipse that fatal drift.
Cut to the picture today. Brexit, that economically suicidal move voted in on a great raft of transparent lies wrapped around a core of British exceptionalism and its associated xenophobia won more than half the votes cast. All those ill-educated hordes that had been swelling over the decades were steeped in exceptionalism. It’s like white trash racism; when you don’t have much going for you, you cling to belief in your superiority as birthright because even you can see you have not done anything that remotely qualifies you as superior any other way. I may be a poor, loud-mouthed knob-head but I’m a British poor, loud-mouthed knob-head so fuck you.
As predicted, dozens of major companies employing many thousands of British citizens pulled up their roots in the UK and moved off shore. That trend is, if anything, accelerating. Does the Brexit-at-any-cost multitude care? Not a whit. The government will not extend the negotiating deadline in spite of the fact that the pandemic has caused negotiations to slow to a crawl. Bring it on. We just want to be shot of Europe at literally any cost.
This is mass stupidity.
Another snapshot: in spite of a deluge of public health messages making it inescapably clear that obesity is very, very bad for you, a third of British adults are now clinically obese and that fraction is growing not shrinking, as are the adults themselves and their increasingly fat children. Among other issues obesity makes coronavirus much more likely to kill you. You’d think, wouldn’t you…? But no. Thanks, I’d love another pint and then we’ll all have an ice cream. This too is mass stupidity.
The hot weather spawns newspaper displays of pages of photos of hundreds of thousands of Brits, many of them visibly obese, packed shoulder to shoulder on the beaches and lakeshores. At a critical moment, when the decline of a pandemic hangs by a thread, they cast off the thing that is keeping them safe because, well, it’s such a nice day. Out they go, stuff their faces and leave unimaginable mountains of food-related rubbish behind, including Big Mac boxes containing the other product of stuffing your face. Stupid, ugly and entitled behaviour, not by a truculent and out-0f-order minority but by very large numbers of the public.
I could go on and on but I think the point is made. Most Brits, and it is probably a fairly narrow majority, are now stupid. So stupid they believe that Great Britain is intrinsically great, which makes them as individuals intrinsically superior, and that nothing they do or don’t do can possibly affect this status. No, not quite. It can be made even greater by expelling all the foreigners who are dragging it down by caring for them when they are sick or old, by serving them their endless lattes, by picking all their fruit and vegetables and by cleaning up their giant mountain of rubbish. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I live on an ordinary middle-class street in a leafy suburb. My neighbours and all my friends here in Bristol and London are reasonably clever, reasonably well-informed, hard working people who view the impending Brexit crashout with horror. They look on at a supposedly conservative government behaving like spoiled, dishonest and not very bright children with distaste and confusion. None of them would go to the beach and walk away leaving their rubbish strewn all over the sand. They – we – have an enduring sense that we are more or less like most people, we’re fairly ordinary, and that kind of behaviour is restricted to the ill-educated, insouciant few because until relatively recently it was. But the numbers have changed. The great demographic shift has turned democracy into a suicide note and my neighbours and friends haven’t quite clocked it. Or perhaps they have but are too polite to express it, always a possibility in England. The vast hordes of stupid people live elsewhere, in the Midlands and in the North, or in suburbs on the far side of the city where they rarely if ever venture. The people of the red wall. Do not believe those who say the great switch to Johnson’s lot happened because those people loathed Corbyn. Were that the whole story they would have simply stayed home on polling day and the numbers show that they did not. No, they actively like, trust and voted for Johnson because he tells them what they want to hear, which is that Britain is the greatest country in the world and will inevitably thrive once it has Europe off its neck. The appallingly bungled response to the pandemic has not caused the slightest visible revision of this conviction. Nothing can or will. It’s wired in.
Actually that’s not quite true. There is a tranche of the public whose opinion of Johnson and his Brexit chumocracy has flipped to loathing: readers of the Times, that shrinking population of people like my neighbours. The comments section of every Johnson story in the Times is filled with fear and loathing of the narcissistic, serial liar as he is most frequently characterised. Pity that they are an ever smaller percentage of the British mass.
What is the solution? There isn’t one. The future is an unwritten book but I can’t see any rising influence that is going to stop this from going on happening. Even if Johnson’s plentiful adipose tissue were to spontaneously combust tomorrow (there are cases on record, I believe) he and Trump have given political chancers everywhere an irrevocable masterclass in how to gain power by flattering the new majority of the stupid and pandering to their post-colonial exceptionalist vanity. This is our future and there is not one damn thing we can do about it. Short, perhaps, of abolishing the universal franchise and letting only those with four or more A-levels vote. Not going to happen. The sun set on the British empire quite a while ago. After a long twilight, now comes the darkness.
Check this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_British_Class_Survey 48% of the population fall into the three lowest sectors – traditional working class, emergent service sector and precariat. Look for ‘highbrow cultural capital’ and count that percentage – well below 50. My sense is that is the term that encapsulates the vanishing qualities once common throughout British society – a sense of decency and consideration for others, environmental consciousness (the non-litterers) etc.
This is reposted from a daily newspaper I subscribe to. I am doing this because it contains vital information which ideally would not be behind a paywall. However, because of the crash in advertising revenue, made worse by advertisers algorithms preventing any ads appearing near bad news, newspapers are under threat of disappearing. I urge everyone to subscribe to one or two daily papers. We need them more than ever, as this article shows.
That said, we need to remember all this detail and make sure that, come the day, we do what we can to hold these people accountable. (I can only hope I don’t get suedfor this ..)
On the third Friday of January a silent and stealthy killer was creeping across the world. Passing from person to person and borne on ships and planes, the coronavirus was already leaving a trail of bodies.
The virus had spread from China to six countries and was almost certainly in many others. Sensing the coming danger, the British government briefly went into wartime mode that day, holding a meeting of Cobra, its national crisis committee.
But it took just an hour that January 24 lunchtime to brush aside the coronavirus threat. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, bounced out of Whitehall after chairing the meeting and breezily told reporters the risk to the UK public was “low”.
This was despite the publication that day of an alarming study by Chinese doctors in the medical journal The Lancet. It assessed the lethal potential of the virus, for the first time suggesting it was comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people.
Unusually, Boris Johnson had been absent from Cobra. The committee — which includes ministers, intelligence chiefs and military generals — gathers at moments of great peril such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other threats to the nation and is normally chaired by the prime minister.
Johnson had found time that day, however, to join in a lunar-new-year dragon eyes ritual as part of Downing Street’s reception for the Chinese community, led by the country’s ambassador.
It was a big day for Johnson and there was a triumphal mood in Downing Street because the withdrawal treaty from the European Union was being signed in the late afternoon. It could have been the defining moment of his premiership — but that was before the world changed.
That afternoon his spokesman played down the looming threat from the east and reassured the nation that we were “well prepared for any new diseases”. The confident, almost nonchalant, attitude displayed that day in January would continue for more than a month.
Johnson went on to miss four further Cobra meetings on the virus. As Britain was hit by unprecedented flooding, he completed the EU withdrawal, reshuffled his cabinet and then went away to the grace-and-favour country retreat at Chevening where he spent most of the two weeks over half-term with his pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds.
It would not be until March 2 — five weeks later — that Johnson would attend a Cobra meeting about the coronavirus. But by then it was almost certainly too late. The virus had sneaked into our airports, our trains, our workplaces and our homes. Britain was on course for one of the worst infections of the most insidious virus to have hit the world in a century.
Last week a senior adviser to Downing Street broke ranks and blamed the weeks of complacency on a failure of leadership in cabinet. The prime minister was singled out.
“There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there,” the adviser said. “And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”
One day there will be an inquiry into the lack of preparations during those “lost” five weeks from January 24. There will be questions about when politicians understood the severity of the threat, what the scientists told them and why so little was done to equip the National Health Service for the coming crisis. It will be the politicians who will face the most intense scrutiny.
Among the key points likely to be explored are why it took so long to recognise an urgent need for a massive boost in supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers; ventilators to treat acute respiratory symptoms; and tests to detect the infection.
We have talked to scientists, academics, doctors, emergency planners, public officials and politicians about the root of the crisis and whether the government should have known sooner and acted more swiftly to kick-start the Whitehall machine and put the NHS onto a war footing.
They told us that, contrary to the official line, Britain was in a poor state of readiness for a pandemic. Emergency stockpiles of PPE had severely dwindled and gone out of date after becoming a low priority in the years of austerity cuts. The training to prepare key workers for a pandemic had been put on hold for two years while contingency planning was diverted to deal with a possible no-deal Brexit.
This made it doubly important that the government hit the ground running in late January and early February. Scientists said the threat from the coming storm was clear. Indeed, one of the government’s key advisory committees was given a dire warning a month earlier than has previously been admitted about the prospect of having to deal with mass casualties.
It was a message repeated throughout February, but the warnings appear to have fallen on deaf ears. The need, for example, to boost emergency supplies of protective masks and gowns for health workers was pressing, but little progress was made in obtaining the items from manufacturers, mainly in China.
Instead, the government sent supplies the other way — shipping 279,000 items of its depleted stockpile of protective equipment to China during this period in response to a request for help from the authorities there.Impending danger
The prime minister had been sunning himself with his girlfriend in the millionaires’ Caribbean resort of Mustique when China alerted the World Health Organisation (WHO) on December 31 that several cases of an unusual pneumonia had been recorded in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in Hubei province.
In the days that followed, China at first claimed the virus could not be transmitted from human to human, which should have been reassuring. But this did not ring true to Britain’s public health academics and epidemiologists, who were texting one another, eager for more information, in early January.
Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at Edinburgh University, had predicted in a talk two years earlier that a virus might jump species from an animal in China and spread quickly to become a human pandemic. So the news from Wuhan set her on high alert.
“In early January a lot of my global health colleagues and I were kind of discussing ‘What’s going on?’” she recalled. “China still hadn’t confirmed the virus was human to human. A lot of us were suspecting it was because it was a respiratory pathogen and you wouldn’t see the numbers of cases that we were seeing out of China if it was not human to human. So that was disturbing.”
By as early as January 16 the professor was on Twitter calling for swift action to prepare for the virus. “Been asked by journalists how serious #WuhanPneumonia outbreak is,” she wrote. “My answer: take it seriously because of cross-border spread (planes means bugs travel far & fast), likely human-to-human transmission and previous outbreaks have taught overresponding is better than delaying action.”
Events were now moving fast. Four hundred miles away in London, on its campus next to the Royal Albert Hall, a team at Imperial College’s School of Public Health led by Professor Neil Ferguson produced its first modelling assessment of the impact of the virus. On Friday January 17 its report noted the “worrying” news that three cases of the virus had been discovered outside China — two in Thailand and one in Japan. While acknowledging many unknowns, researchers calculated that there could already be as many as 4,000 cases. The report warned: “The magnitude of these numbers suggests substantial human-to-human transmission cannot be ruled out. Heightened surveillance, prompt information-sharing and enhanced preparedness are recommended.”
By now the mystery bug had been identified as a type of coronavirus — a large family of viruses that can cause infections ranging from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars). There had been two reported deaths from the virus and 41 patients had been taken ill.
The following Wednesday, January 22, the government convened the first meeting of its scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) to discuss the virus. Its membership is secret but it is usually chaired by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty. Downing Street advisers are also present.
There were new findings that day, with Chinese scientists warning that the virus had an unusually high infectivity rate of up to 3.0, which meant each person with the virus would typically infect up to three more people.
One of those present was Imperial’s Ferguson, who was already working on his own estimate — putting infectivity at 2.6 and possibly as high as 3.5 — which he sent to ministers and officials in a report on the day of the Cobra meeting on January 24. The Spanish flu had an estimated infectivity rate of between 2.0 and 3.0, whereas for most flu outbreaks it is about 1.3, so Ferguson’s finding was shocking.
The professor’s other bombshell in the report was that there needed to be a 60% cut in the transmission rate — which meant stopping contact between people. In layman’s terms it meant a lockdown, a move that would paralyse an economy already facing a battering from Brexit. At the time such a suggestion was unthinkable in the government and belonged to the world of post-apocalypse movies.
The growing alarm among scientists appears not to have been heard or heeded by policy-makers. After the January 25 Cobra meeting, the chorus of reassurance was not just from Hancock and the prime minister’s spokesman: Whitty was confident too.
In early February Hancock proudly told the Commons the UK was one of the first countries to develop a new test for the virus.
“Cobra met today to discuss the situation in Wuhan, China,” said Whitty. “We have global experts monitoring the situation around the clock and have a strong track record of managing new forms of infectious disease . . . there are no confirmed cases in the UK to date.”
However, by then there had been 1,000 cases worldwide and 41 deaths, mostly in Wuhan. A Lancet report that day presented a study of 41 coronavirus patients admitted to hospital in Wuhan, which found that more than half had severe breathing problems, a third required intensive care and six had died.
And there was now little doubt that the UK would be hit by the virus. A study by Southampton University has shown that 190,000 people flew into the UK from Wuhan and other high-risk Chinese cities between January and March. The researchers estimated that up to 1,900 of these passengers would have been infected with the coronavirus — almost guaranteeing the UK would become a centre of the subsequent pandemic.
Sure enough, five days later, on Wednesday January 29, the first coronavirus cases on British soil were found when two Chinese nationals from the same family fell ill at a hotel in York. The next day the government raised the threat level from low to moderate.
The pandemic plan
On January 31 — or Brexit day, as it had become known — there was a rousing 11pm speech by the prime minister promising that withdrawal from the European Union would be the dawn of a new era, unleashing the British people, who would “grow in confidence” month by month.
By this time there was good reason for the government’s top scientific advisers to feel creeping unease about the virus. The WHO had declared the coronavirus a global emergency just the previous day, and scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had confirmed to Whitty in a private meeting of the Nervtag advisory committee on respiratory illness that the virus’s infectivity could be as bad as Ferguson’s worst estimate several days earlier.
The official scientific advisers were willing to concede in public that there might be several cases of the coronavirus in the UK. But they had faith that the country’s plans for a pandemic would prove robust.
This was probably a big mistake. An adviser to Downing Street — speaking off the record — said their confidence in “the plan” was misplaced. While a possible pandemic had been listed as the No 1 threat to the nation for many years, the source said that in reality it had long since stopped being treated as such.
Several emergency planners and scientists said that the plans to protect the UK in a pandemic had once been a priority and had been well funded for the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. But then austerity cuts struck. “We were the envy of the world,” the source said, “but pandemic planning became a casualty of the austerity years, when there were more pressing needs.”
The last rehearsal for a pandemic was a 2016 exercise codenamed Cygnus, which predicted the health service would collapse and highlighted a long list of shortcomings — including, presciently, a lack of PPE and intensive care ventilators.
An equally lengthy list of recommendations to address the deficiencies was never implemented. The source said preparations for a no-deal Brexit “sucked all the blood out of pandemic planning” in the following years.
In the year leading up to the coronavirus outbreak key government committee meetings on pandemic planning were repeatedly “bumped” off the diary to make way for discussions about more pressing issues such as the beds crisis in the NHS. Training for NHS staff with protective equipment and respirators was also neglected, the source alleges.
Members of the government advisory group on pandemics are said to have felt powerless. “They would joke between themselves, ‘Ha-ha, let’s hope we don’t get a pandemic’, because there wasn’t a single area of practice that was being nurtured in order for us to meet basic requirements for a pandemic, never mind do it well,” said the source.
“If you were with senior NHS managers at all during the last two years, you were aware that their biggest fear, their sweatiest nightmare, was a pandemic, because they weren’t prepared for it.”
It meant that the government had much catching-up to do as it became clear that this “nightmare” was turning into a distinct possibility in February. But the source said there was still little urgency. “Almost every plan we had was not activated in February. Almost every government department has failed to properly implement their own pandemic plans,” the source said.
One deviation from the plan, for example, was a failure to give an early warning to firms that there might be a lockdown so they could start contingency planning. “There was a duty to get them to start thinking about their cashflow and their business continuity arrangements,” the source said.
A central part of any pandemic plan is to identify anyone who becomes ill, vigorously pursue all their recent contacts and put them into quarantine. That involves testing, and the UK seemed to be ahead of the game. In early February Hancock proudly told the Commons the UK was one of the first countries to develop a new test for the coronavirus. “Testing worldwide is being done on equipment designed in Oxford,” he said.
So when Steve Walsh, a 53-year-old businessman from Hove, East Sussex, was identified as the source of the second UK outbreak on February 6, all his contacts were followed up with tests. Walsh’s case was a warning of the rampant infectivity of the virus: he is believed to have passed it to five people in the UK after returning from a conference in Singapore, as well as six overseas.
But Public Health England failed to take advantage of our early breakthroughs with tests and lost early opportunities to step up production to the levels that would later be needed.
This was in part because the government was planning for the virus using its blueprint for fighting the flu. Once a flu pandemic has found its way into the population and there is no vaccine, the virus is allowed to take its course until “herd immunity” is acquired. Such a plan does not require mass testing.
A senior politician told this newspaper: “I had conversations with Chris Whitty at the end of January, and they were absolutely focused on herd immunity. The reason is that with flu, herd immunity is the right response if you haven’t got a vaccine.
“All of our planning was for pandemic flu. There has basically been a divide between scientists in Asia, who saw this as a horrible, deadly disease on the lines of Sars, which requires immediate lockdown, and those in the West, particularly in the US and UK, who saw this as flu.”
The prime minister’s top adviser, Dominic Cummings, is said to have had initial enthusiasm for the herd immunity concept, which may have played a part in the government’s early approach to managing the virus. The Department of Health firmly denies that “herd immunity” was ever its aim and rejects suggestions that Whitty supported it. Cummings also denies backing the concept.
The failure to obtain large amounts of testing equipment was another big error of judgment, according to the Downing Street source. It would later be one of the big scandals of the coronavirus crisis that the considerable capacity of Britain’s private laboratories to mass-produce tests was not harnessed during those crucial weeks of February.
“We should have communicated with every commercial testing laboratory that might volunteer to become part of the government’s testing regime, but that didn’t happen,” said the source.
The lack of action was confirmed by Doris-Ann Williams, chief executive of the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association, which represents 110 companies that make up most of the UK’s testing sector. Amazingly, she said her organisation did not receive a meaningful approach from the government asking for help until April 1 — the night before Hancock bowed to pressure and announced a belated and ambitious target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month.
There was also a failure to replenish supplies of gowns and masks for health and care workers in the early weeks of February — despite NHS England declaring the virus its first “level 4 critical incident” at the end of January.
It was a key part of the pandemic plan — the NHS’s Operating Framework for Managing the Response to Pandemic Influenza, dated December 2017 — that the NHS would be able to draw on “just in case” stockpiles of PPE.
But many of the “just in case” stockpiles had dwindled, and equipment was out of date. As not enough money was being spent on replenishing stockpiles, this shortfall was supposed to be filled by activating “just in time” contracts, which had been arranged with equipment suppliers in recent years to deal with an emergency. The first order for equipment under the “just in time” protocol was made on January 30.
However, the source said that attempts to call in these “just in time” contracts immediately ran into difficulties in February because they were mostly with Chinese manufacturers, which were facing unprecedented demand from the country’s own health service and elsewhere.
This was another nail in the coffin for the pandemic plan. “It was a massive spider’s web of failing; every domino has fallen,” said the source.
The NHS could have contacted UK-based suppliers. The British Healthcare Trades Association (BHTA) was ready to help supply PPE in February — and throughout March — but it was only on April 1 that its offer of help was accepted. Dr Simon Festing, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “Orders undoubtedly went overseas instead of to the NHS because of the missed opportunities in the procurement process.”
Downing Street admitted on February 24 — just five days before NHS chiefs warned a lack of PPE left the health service facing a “nightmare” — that the UK government had supplied 1,800 pairs of goggles and 43,000 disposable gloves, 194,000 sanitising wipes, 37,500 medical gowns and 2,500 face masks to China.
A senior Department of Health insider described the sense of drift witnessed during those crucial weeks in February: “We missed the boat on testing and PPE . . . I remember being called into some of the meetings about this in February and thinking, ‘Well, it’s a good thing this isn’t the big one.’
“I had watched Wuhan but I assumed we must have not been worried because we did nothing. We just watched. A pandemic was always at the top of our national risk register — always — but when it came we just slowly watched. We could have been Germany, but instead we were doomed by our incompetence, our hubris and our austerity.”
In the Far East the threat was being treated more seriously in the early weeks of February. Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was in a unique position to compare the UK’s response with Singapore, where he had advised in the past.
“Singapore realised, as soon as Wuhan reported it, that cases were going to turn up in Singapore. And so they prepared for that. I looked at the UK and I can see a different strategy and approach.
“The interesting thing for me is, I’ve worked with Singapore in 2003 and 2009 and basically they copied the UK pandemic preparedness plan. But the difference is they actually implemented it.”Working holiday
Towards the end of the second week of February, the prime minister was demob happy. After sacking five cabinet ministers and saying everyone “should be confident and calm” about Britain’s response to the virus, Johnson vacated Downing Street after the half-term recess began on February 13.
He headed to the country for a “working” holiday at Chevening with Symonds and would be out of the public eye for 12 days. His aides were thankful for the rest, as they had been working flat-out since the summer as the Brexit power struggle had played out.
The Sunday newspapers that weekend would not have made comfortable reading. The Sunday Times reported on a briefing from a risk specialist that said Public Health England would be overrun during a pandemic as it could test only 1,000 people a day.
Johnson may well have been distracted by matters in his personal life during his stay in the countryside. Aides were told to keep their briefing papers short and cut the number of memos in his red box if they wanted them to be read.
His family needed to be prepared for the announcement that Symonds, who turned 32 in March, was pregnant and that they had been secretly engaged for some time. Relations with his children had been fraught since his separation from his estranged wife Marina Wheeler and the rift had deepened when she received a cancer diagnosis last year.
The divorce also had to be finalised. Midway through the break it was announced in the High Court that the couple had reached a settlement, leaving Wheeler free to apply for divorce.
There were murmurings of frustration from some ministers and their aides at the time that Johnson was not taking more of a lead. But Johnson’s aides are understood to have felt relaxed: he was getting updates and they claim the scientists were saying everything was under control.
By the time Johnson departed for the countryside, however, there was mounting unease among scientists about the exceptional nature of the threat. Sir Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist who is a key government adviser, made this clear in a recent BBC interview.
“I think from the early days in February, if not in late January, it was obvious this infection was going to be very serious and it was going to affect more than just the region of Asia,” he said. “I think it was very clear that this was going to be an unprecedented event.”
By February 21 the virus had already infected 76,000 people, had caused 2,300 deaths in China and was taking a foothold in Europe, with Italy recording 51 cases and two deaths the following day. Nonetheless Nervtag, one of the key government advisory committees, decided to keep the threat level at “moderate”.
Its members may well regret that decision with hindsight, and it was certainly not unanimous. John Edmunds, one of the country’s top infectious disease modellers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was participating in the meeting by video link, but his technology failed him at the crucial moment.
Edmunds wanted the threat level to be increased to high but could not make his view known as the link was glitchy. He sent an email later making his view clear. “JE believes that the risk to the UK population [in the PHE risk assessment] should be high, as there is evidence of ongoing transmission in Korea, Japan and Singapore, as well as in China,” the meeting’s minutes state. But the decision had already been taken.
Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College, was in America at the time of the meeting but would also have recommended increasing the threat to high. Three days earlier he had given an address to a seminar in which he estimated that 60% of the world’s population would probably become infected if no action was taken and 400,000 people would die in the UK.
By February 26 there were 13 known cases in the UK. That day — almost four weeks before a full lockdown would be announced — ministers were warned through another advisory committee that the country was facing a catastrophic loss of life unless drastic action was taken. Having been thwarted from sounding the alarm, Edmunds and his team presented their latest “worst scenario” predictions to the scientific pandemic influenza group on modelling (SPI-M), which directly advises the country’s scientific decision-makers in Sage.
It warned that 27 million people could be infected and 220,000 intensive care beds would be needed if no action were taken to reduce infection rates. The predicted death toll was 380,000. Edmunds’s colleague Nick Davies, who led the research, says the report emphasised the urgent need for a lockdown almost four weeks before it was imposed.
The team modelled the effects of a 12-week lockdown involving school and work closures, shielding the elderly, social distancing and self-isolation. It estimated this would delay the impact of the pandemic but there still might be 280,000 deaths over the year.
The previous night Johnson had returned to London for the Conservatives’ big fundraising ball, the Winter Party, at which one donor pledged £60,000 for the privilege of playing a game of tennis with him.
By this time the prime minister had missed five Cobra meetings on the preparations to combat the looming pandemic, which he left to be chaired by Hancock. Johnson was an easy target for the opposition when he returned to the Commons the following day: the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, labelled him a “part-time” prime minister for his failure to lead on the virus crisis or visit the areas of the UK badly hit by floods.
By Friday February 28 the virus had taken root in the UK, with reported cases rising to 19, and the stock markets were plunging. It was finally time for Johnson to act. He summoned a TV reporter into Downing Street to say he was on top of the coronavirus crisis.
“The issue of coronavirus is something that is now the government’s top priority,” he said. “I have just had a meeting with the chief medical officer and secretary of state for health talking about the preparations that we need to make.”
It was finally announced that he would be attending a meeting of Cobra — after a weekend at Chequers with Symonds where the couple would publicly release news of the engagement and their baby.
On the Sunday there was a meeting between Sage committee members and officials from the Department of Health and the NHS that was a game-changer, according to a Whitehall source. The meeting was shown fresh modelling based on figures from Italy suggesting that 8% of infected people might need hospital treatment in a worst-case scenario. The previous estimate had been 4%-5%.
“The risk to the NHS had effectively doubled in an instant. It set alarm bells ringing across government,” said the Whitehall source. “I think that meeting focused minds. You realise it’s time to pull the trigger on the starting gun.”
Many NHS workers have been left without proper protection
At the Cobra meeting the next day, with Johnson in the chair, a full “battle plan” was finally signed off to contain, delay and mitigate the spread of the virus. This was on March 2 — five weeks after the first Cobra meeting on the virus.
The new push would have some positive benefits such as the creation of new Nightingale hospitals, which greatly increased the number of intensive care beds. But there was a further delay that month of nine days in introducing the lockdown as Johnson and his senior advisers debated what measures were required. Later the government would be left rudderless again after Johnson himself contracted the virus.
As the number of infections grew daily, some things were impossible to retrieve. There was a worldwide shortage of PPE, and the prime minister would have to personally ring manufacturers of ventilators and testing kits in a desperate effort to boost supplies.
The result was that the NHS and care home workers would be left without proper protection and insufficient numbers of tests to find out whether they had been infected. To date 50 doctors, nurses and NHS workers have died. More than 100,000 people have been confirmed as infected in Britain and 15,000 have died.
This weekend sources close to Hancock said that from late January he instituted a “prepare for the worst” approach to the virus, held daily meetings and started work on PPE supplies.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “Our response has ensured that the NHS has been given all the support it needs to ensure everyone requiring treatment has received it, as well as providing protection to businesses and reassurance to workers. The prime minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation.”
Sticking the official statement that everything is fine, everything has been done correctly at the very end of a story has become a newspaper convention, effectively hanging a sign over it saying, ” …and finally, the bullshit.”