Some people see a conspiracy. I see incapacity, discontinuity, utter incompetence and gross negligence.
Thousands of miles away from here, the Chinese government stands accused. In 2003, following the last major SARS outbreak — traced to colony of bats and transmitted to humans via farmed civets sold for food — China shut down its wet markets nationwide. The right move, given that wet markets are the source of numerous zoonotic diseases, spread to humans from animals. However, the closure was extremely short-lived; six months later they were open again, for the wild animal trade is a lucrative business contributing to rural economic development, promoted by the Chinese government itself. Only time will tell whether the latest closure of wet markers will be different. Will they close for good this time? My gut feeling: highly unlikely.
Here at home: where to start? In October 2016, the British government held a three-day joint training exercise with the health service and local authorities to determine readiness for a novel influenza pandemic. Shortly after the exercise, the government’s chief medical officer at the time told a health conference that it soon became clear that they could not cope with the number of deaths. Two years earlier, the Cabinet Office classified pandemic influenza as the number one threat to the UK population. In 2017, the Cabinet Office then emphasised that the emergency impact of pandemic flu was on a par with large-scale chemical, biological or nuclear attacks.
On paper, the health service, local authorities and central government have been preparing for years for an influenza pandemic likely to result in the deaths of millions of people globally. What action was taken to lift the conclusions of those studies, exercises and plans from paper and make actual, physical preparations? Since the EU Referendum vote in June 2016, the British government has seemingly been preoccupied with one thing only: delivering Brexit, Britain’s exit from the EU. The shenanigans over the past four years have been astounding. Simultaneously, the government’s austerity strategy over the past decade has led to billions of pounds worth of cuts from health service and local authority budgets.
The result? Despite reams of emergency planning documentation prepared for a pandemic event over the past decade, the British government — seemingly completely taken by surprise — is now presiding over a testing debacle, allegedly due to a shortage of chemical agents; a shortage of medical ventilators; a shortage of critical care beds; a shortage of adequate protective equipment; and has completely given up on its early testing and tracing plan. To its credit, it has now created a gigantic field hospital, is in the process of creating several more and has commandeered Milton Keynes ice rink as a temporary mortuary.
Some people see a conspiracy here. I just see a shambles of utter incompetence, from a government led by pathological liars, who for four years have presided over a totally unnecessary political quagmire, self-inflicted on the nation. Nobody is saying that responding to a pandemic is easy, but it is made doubly hard when those in charge lack continuity, purging knowledge and expertise, and are utterly incompetent and grossly negligent.
There will be a reckoning; if not in this world, certainly in the next.