Richard North, 30/04/2020  

It's been a busy few weeks. On top of the daily blogpost, I've been working on a second edition of Scared to Death, updating it with a Chapter on Covid-19. Although this epidemic is definitely not a scare in any sense, we've included it by way of contrast. In order to identify a scare – a disproportionate response to a real or imagined threat - it helps to be able to compare it with the real thing.

Having just finished the new chapter, incorporating much of the work published on this blog plus some new material, I reckon I'm pretty much au fait with the background to the Covid-19 epidemic and, in particular, the UK government response – which largely defines whether or not it can considered to be a scare.

The point to make here is that a scare can involve a real or imagined threat. If the threat is real (and in any event), then what defines it is the disproportionate response. Thus, it is a valid position (if supported by the facts) to argue that the SARS-cov-2 threat is real but the government has over-reacted and implemented unnecessarily severe (or even counter-productive) measures.

As it happens (and this will come as no surprise to regular readers), I don't think the Covid-19 epidemic is a scare, although some argue that it is. Largely, they seem to base this on the view that the economic damage caused by the lockdown is so great that it outweighs any benefit gained from that measure, thus rendering it disproportionate.

That is a point that I argue closely in the book chapter, but there is also another issue I address, which is particularly relevant in view of the publication by the Guardian of what they consider to be a major investigation in which is "revealed" the "inside story of the UK's Covid-19 crisis".

Given that the newspaper and I are doing roughly the same job – describing the background to the Covid-19 crisis – and that the Guardian piece, with input from no less than seven journalists, is much the same length as my chapter, you might think that our two accounts would be fairly similar. But if you did, you would be wrong. Reading the two accounts, you might wonder whether we were even describing the same events.

What makes the difference, I believe, is that in typical legacy media style, the Guardian's account – in its own words – "is based on interviews with sources in or close to Downing Street, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Cabinet Office, Cobra and Sage, as well as other advisers and experts". Many of these sources "asked not to be named, because they were not authorised to speak publicly".

In other words, the paper is relying to an overwhelming extent on unsourced oral evidence, based largely on supposition, untested claims and accounts of interviews where, for each, neither the full exchange (with questions shown) nor the context is disclosed. Throughout, there is a marked reluctance to use official published sources, and the timescale of the inquiry is extremely narrow.

From this, the paper concludes that "herd immunity and delayed lockdown hampered efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus", a finding which, from a purely evidential point of view, is completely valueless.

By contrast, in drawing up my account, I have relied mainly on official documents, and interviews and comments published in the media, official press releases and statements, broadcasts, and hearings where, in all cases, the context is known. And, as for the timeline, this goes back to 2002-3, with the first SARS outbreaks.

What emerges from this once again is the observation that Booker and I made in the original edition of Scared to Death: the media has lost the ability to mount accurate, dispassionate reportage. It is more interested in publishing material that will set pulses racing and chill the blood of their readers and viewers. Their material has all the psychological appeal of a real-life disaster movie, and just about the same grip of reality.

To spice up their pieces, they seek to find evidence (often spurious) of a "government cover-up", so that journalists can "exclusively reveal" some alarming detail the authorities have tried to conceal from the public – which is exactly what the Guardian has sought to do here.

In my critique in the new addition of the book, I remark that this obsession with "secret squirrel" journalism (with Morocco Mole) often means that unpublished or leaked material is preferred over published work, to spice up otherwise unremarkable stories, leading to flawed and often misleading conclusions.

Readers here will know that my main findings are that many of the problems encountered by the government stem from its failure to prepare for a SARS epidemic, instead relying on a pandemic influenza plan which, in the event, has proved dangerously inappropriate for dealing with the Covid-19 outbreaks.

Perversely, one of the very few official documents to which the Guardian does refer – although to an entirely superficial extent – is the government's coronavirus action plan, published on 3 March 2020. And there we see a passage, entirely ignored by the paper, which states:
The UK is well prepared for disease outbreaks, having responded to a wide range of infectious disease outbreaks in the recent past, and having undertaken significant preparedness work for an influenza pandemic for well over one decade (e.g. our existing plan flu plans). Our plans have been regularly tested and updated locally and nationally to ensure they are fit for purpose. This experience provides the basis for an effective response to COVID-19, which can be tailored as more specific information emerges about the virus.
There, writ large – without in any way exploring the implications of what it is saying – is a government admission that it has been using the influenza plan to deal with a SARS epidemic.

As if that wasn't enough, the Guardian cites former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, expressing concern that, in its response to Covid-19, Britain had become an "outlier". What it didn't do is quote a major article in The Times on 23 April, retailing Hunt's complaint that the "Whitehall pandemic strategy [was] focused too much on [the] flu threat", rather than a previously unknown disease like the 2003 SARS virus.

From a man who signed off the 2014 flu strategy, which was forming the template for the pandemic response, here was more evidence, written in plain sight, as to where the government's strategy had gone wrong.

As one might expect, though, the Guardian is not alone in its myopia. A similar lacuna could be found in the BBC's Panorama programme of 27 April, on the failure of the government to stockpile adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospitals.

That failure, itself, was a function of following the flu plan, as the scale of equipment required for coronavirus was considerably greater than that needed for flu. This can be seen from the NHS Operating Framework for Managing the Response to Pandemic Influenza, originally published in October 2013 and updated in December 2017. There, it says in relation to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):
The bulk of the stockpile consists of PPE designed to protect healthcare workers from contracting pandemic influenza while caring for patients. This includes surgical facemasks, FFP3 respirators, gloves and aprons, plus hygiene consumables.
The visors and gowns deemed necessary for dealing with Covid-19 were never stockpiled because the NHS was following the flu plan, and such items were not considered necessary for flu.

Needless to say, the BBC does not seem to be aware of this although, on its website, a government spokesperson was cited, saying: "the stockpile was designed for a flu pandemic", adding: "Covid-19 is a different disease with a higher hospitalisation rate", thus confirming the thesis that the government had planned for the wrong disease. Yet the BBC let this admission pass by without comment. It did not fit the narrative.

And that's the way with the modern media. Given a choice between a sober assessment of the state of the art, or apocalyptic sensationalism, it will go for that latter every time, spiced with "secret squirrel" exclusives to deceive the gullible into thinking that they are producing material of any value.

As for the Guardian, their investigation will now be locked in as the received wisdom, to be trotted out whenever a government critique is required, immune from correction or revision, then no doubt to be written into a book to become the popular account of record. That, these days, is how history is made.

That much we can already see with the Guardian editorial proclaiming that "herd immunity" was "part of the plan" and that the government's early approach to the Covid-19 crisis, despite its denials, was to let the disease spread. It wasn't. That was simply the effect of following the flu plan – an important distinction. But the media isn't into subtlety. It has a narrative to protect. Truth is optional.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few