Richard North, 08/04/2020  

The maudlin sentimentality displayed by the British media (or some of it) over the incapacity of the prime minister is a horrible reminder of how far the Dianafication process has rotted the intellect of the fourth estate.

Should we be unfortunate enough to have the man die on us, then we can expect even worse than we are getting. Before the corpse had even cooled, we might expect the man to have been canonised. Doubtless, he will become the patron saint of hand-washing, a man whose holy name we must intone (twice) as we ritually perform our government-mandated ablutions.

Fortunately for us – and of some benefit to him as well – it doesn't look as if Johnson is about to shuffle off this mortal coil, not yet at any rate. That is, assuming, of course, that the current reports of his health status are more accurate than the ones that preceded it.

Actually, we need the latest reports to be correct. And Johnson must return to good health so that he, alongside his advisers and political colleagues, can face the music in the inevitable inquiry that must follow – assuming it is not to be a whitewash like Chilcot, and the many others before it.

If such an inquiry was ever to establish the truth – and be courageous (or foolhardy) enough to publish it – it will have to find that it has been the response to the Covid-19 epidemic in the UK that has been largely responsible for the rising case-rate and the number of deaths, and the enormous economic damage.

Some of the failings have already been rehearsed on this blog but now, there are the first glimmerings of media analysis (albeit by Reuters), which might point to the shape of the arguments to come.

In a crucial passage, the report tells us that – before the disease became established here - UK scientists were mostly convinced - and many still are - that, once the new virus escaped China, quarantine measures would likely not succeed.

Reuters then confirms what we already know, that the minutes of technical committees indicate that almost no attention was paid to preparing a programme of mass testing. And then, paralleling the conclusion we reached days ago, the news agency concludes – on the basis of other minutes and interviews – that Britain was following closely a well-laid plan to fight a flu pandemic - not this deadlier disease.

Illustrating where the points of contention will most certainly lie, Reuters tells us that the scientists involved, "deny that the flu focus ultimately made much difference".

This, the agency does not challenge, but it is useful to have the confirmation of what we already knew – by the simple expedient of examining the plans available and noting that, while there were multiple iterations of influenza preparedness plans, there was no plan for dealing with a SARS pandemic, even though the epidemiology is very different from that of influenza, demanding a very different response.

One can imagine that the unnamed scientists will be only too keen to blur the distinction but the differences are substantial and, to trained minds specialising in preparing for epidemics, should have been glaringly obvious.

By comparison, the influenza response relies on early detection of the virus at or close to its point of origin, with a relatively slow spread to the UK, giving time for the process of creating, manufacturing and administering a vaccine to be carried out.

The plan was then to monitor the progress of the disease on its arrival in the UK and, once sustained community transmission had been confirmed, any attempt at controlling the spread was to be abandoned. Instead, with the availability of effective antivirals such a Tamiflu, the emphasis was on "mitigation" – saving lives and buying time until the vaccine was ready.

From monitoring the progress of this Covid epidemic, even relying on open source data and public statements of politicians and officials, it is unarguable that the official response was to trigger the flu pandemic plan.

Yet, here was a disease which is quite obviously more infectious (given the speed with which it reached these shores), is significantly more dangerous and, crucially, for which there was no (and will not be for the foreseeable future) vaccine and no proven antivirals.

These differences should have raised alarm bells, and they should have signalled that the consequences of relying on the influenza plan would inevitably be large-scale deaths. There was no need for the magical mysteries of the Ferguson modelling machine. Such an outcome should have been evident from simple deductive reasoning, based on information already known at the time.

In the Reuters report, there is an unnamed senior Conservative Party politician, who was officially briefed as the crisis unfolded. He believes that the close involvement in the response to the coronavirus of the same scientific advisers and civil servants who drew up the flu plan may have created a "cognitive bias".

"We had in our minds that COVID-19 was a nasty flu and needed to be treated as such", he says. "The implication was it was a disease that could not be stopped and that it was ultimately not that deadly".  

Here, there is the germ of an explanation for the inadequate response. We are in fact seeing a version of déformation professionnelle, where the officials and "expert" advisers had so heavily invested in "The Plan" that their first instinct would be to defend it.

To do otherwise would amount to an admission of fallibility which does not come easy. The reputations of High Persons, in these instances, is often more important than mere lives, as graphically illustrated by Norman Dixon in his ground breaking book, "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence".

In the event that the influenza plan had to be discarded (which it should have been), not least of the problems confronting officials would have been the need to admit that no one had thought actually to prepare a plan for a SARS epidemic, thus expecting ministers – as well as the Great Leader – to make up policy on the hoof.

As if that was not enough, however, the Reuters report also confirms that, in the early stages, the officials and experts systematically understated the dangers of the approaching epidemic, allowing a deluded (or misinformed) Johnson on 3 March to declare that: "Our country remains extremely well prepared", adding: "We already have a fantastic NHS, fantastic testing systems and fantastic surveillance of the spread of disease".

As it turns out, the nation might have been prepared for the flu but we were completely unprepared for a SARS epidemic. The testing system was nowhere up to the job and the surveillance system was designed to be wound up once the epidemic had been established.

Perhaps a more astute prime minister might have been more rigorous in cross-examining his officials, and been less gullible when assessing the claims of his experts. After all, this is not the first time the health establishment had got their projections completely wrong, vide Salmonella and eggs, Listeria and BSE.

In a tragic inversion, though, where the standard response of the "experts" is to overstate the case, laying the foundations for the classic "scare", in this case the danger was understated and the nation was unprepared.

Perversely, the Reuters report states that, as countries debate how to combat the virus, some experts here say, the lesson from the British experience may be that governments and scientists worldwide must increase the transparency of their planning so that their thinking and assumptions are open to challenge.

But this must be special pleading. The reality is that the planning could not have been more transparent. The original influenza plan was openly published, it was opened up to consultation and every amendment, with supporting documentation, was published. What was not published, of course, was the SARS plan – but that was because there wasn't one.

For the moment, though, we are in the grip of a SARS epidemic which has produced 55,242 recorded cases so far and 6,159 acknowledged deaths – although both figures are understated. Come the inquiry, therefore, the focus must be on why so many people got it so wrong, so many times.

Before we get there, it would be no bad thing to reflect that, had people in high places - taking the big bucks and happily collecting their gongs and sundry other honours – done their jobs properly, we would not need the gushing odes to the wonders of the NHS, and a fallen prime minister.

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