Thursday, 16 April 2020

Time to get a grip on the Corona Virus shambles

Audrey Shaw
Take a deep breath, count to a thousand, then try and write a few coherent words.

Yesterday, I wrote a tribute to my Auntie Audrey, who passed away on Tuesday evening. I wrote this for her family and for her friends, to try and put a smile on their face. I didn't want to speak about her illness and the circumstances of her death. That was not on the agenda. However, as Audrey was someone with strong views and someone who spent her life believing in fairness, justice and social responsibility, I also know that she would not rest in peace until I said what I am about to say.

Audrey was eighty nine years old. She was in good health for a lady of her age, until the Sunday before last whens he had a stroke. I spoke to her a couple of days later. She called as it was our wedding anniversary. She told me she was having physio, and she was hoping to leave hospital within a couple of weeks. The question was where she would be going. Would she be staying with one of her daughters or would she go home and they'd take turns to look after her. It all seemed rather positive. Then last Friday, we got the news which I guess everyone dreads. She had Covid19. It was clear that this had been picked up in hospital. The place Audrey had been taken to get better had resulted in her demise. The stats on the news said 761 people had died. Without Audrey, it would have been 760. She is just one small number in a very large number to most people. To us, she was the number that mattered the most. There are 760 other families, with stories, with grief, just the same. But for us, Audrey was the focus. That is why it is personal.

There are many things that we can say about the way the UK has dealt with the crisis. There are many people we can commend. The vast majority of the population, who are following the rules. The NHS workers, the key workers, the old veteran who has walked around his garden 100 times and raised £12 million. I could go on, but you get the drift.

Then there is the government. I will refrain from criticising Boris Johnson, he has been out of the picture and is unwell. We will never know if things would have been better if he had been well, but out of a sense of fair play, I will give him the benefit of the doubt. Then there is the Chancellor. The blow to the economy has been devastating, but he has the air of a man with a grip on the situation. I can say this, as his measures have directly impacted our business in a way which means we feel confident we will survive the crisis and when we reopen, twelve people will return to work. I 100% realise that some will not be so lucky, but given the speed and scale of the crisis, he seems to have done his best.

Then there is the Health secretary, Matt Hancock. He has one job. It isn't easy, but if you don't want the responsibility, don't put your hand up when the jobs are being divvied up by The Prime Minister. The sad truth is that with any objective analysis, he has completely failed the country. His job is to make sure the NHS is fit for purpose to deal with whatever challenges get thrown at it. His job is to listen to scientific advisers, organise supply chains, make sure the chancellor gives him the dosh to pay the bills. The sad truth, and what happened to Audrey is proof of this, is that he has failed us.

Whilst no one expected the Covid19 crisis in December, the job of the health secretary is to ensure that robust plans are in place for such things. Humanity has been at war against infectious diseases since we first evolved from monkeys (or Adam popped into the Garden of Eden, if you prefer that version). The fact we are still here, is a testament to our robust design and our adaptability as a species. Over the last 1,000 years, medicine has evolved from hocum pokum to a precise science. We know that every few years a new, infectious virus will emerge. We know that it will take us a pweriod to develop vaccines. We know that distancing and isolation are the only effective means of blocking transmission until a vaccine has been developed, if the virus takes hold in the population. We know that when people deal with such dangerous pathogens, they need effective equipment (now called PPE). In the late 1970's I worked at the National Institute for Medical Research. I arranged myself some unofficial work experience, working in the immunology department as a lab porter. At the time, some labs had pathogens such as Green Monkey Fever. The protocols were strict. I discussed the response to plagues and diseases with the scientists. I was writing a project for my A level Biology course on immunology. I am not an expert, but we know this stuff. The government built the NIMR in Mill Hill (Now the Crick Institute) so we'd be able to deal with this. Governments, both Labour and Conservative, have funded research and built resilience into the system, so that when the day came we would be prepared.

And that day has come. How has the UK responded? Our key NHS staff and care workers do not have PPE. We have been woefully slow in ramping up testing to anything like the levels we need. Th sad truth, brutal though it is, is that my Aunt was infected by someone in the hospital where she was taken for treatment. This was not inevitable. The sad truth was that she caught it either because she came within six feet of someone with the disease that did not have proper PPE on, or she was given something that had not been sanitised and had been in contact with someone who had covid. I don't know who this was. A doctor, a nurse, another patient, the tea maker, the cleaner, who knows. All I know is that if all of those people had simply applied the rules we've known for decades, then we'd b planning her discharge rather than her funeral.

Matt Hancocks job is to make sure Audrey and the other 760 people whop passed away are safe in hospital. Many won't have contracted it in hospitals or from health workers, but the lack of PPE and testing means we don't know which workers have the disease and we haven't given them the tools to protect their patients. Both patients and workers have been placed in danger.

I did not need to be like this. It seems that in Germany and New Zealand, for example, they got a grip on the situation early. They have PPE and they have testing. What are they doing that we haven't been doing? The answer is simple. They have just been properly organised, recognised the risks and done something about it.

Every day, I've listened to the 5pm conference. Every day the news is the same. Not enough PPE, not enough tests, it will always be better next week, but the press is full of horror stories. There is no earthly reason why the NHS should not have a stockpile of PPE to last for the next two years, let alone two months. If Germany and South Korea can source tests that works, the excuse we hear that we can't is clearly nonsense. One question that has been asked time and again is why people returning from covid hotspots have not been tested and quarantined? Maybe I'm stupid, but there has not been a single satisfactory answer. I've no idea whether the scientific advisers wheeled out are under orders to tow the line or whether they believe what they say, but it makes no sense.

I'm happy to observe the rules on lockdown for the greater good. I am one of the lucky ones with a garden and a dog and a guitar, so there is stuff to do. The UK has been on a mission to build as many tiny flats as possible, with no outdoor space. I've long felt this was a folly. Now we see millions cooped up in these, with no respite at all. Heaven alone knows what this is doing for their mental health. I have sympathy for those that seek an hours sunbathing in the park, on their own, yards from other people. I don't join in the clarion call on social media criticising those out on their bikes. The bottom line is that they are highly unlikely to infect anyone, as if they are in the road, they will be far more than six feet from pedestrians.

Another example of the drift is the questions as to what will happen when lockdown ends. The answer has been "That is some time away so we will not discuss it". This displays a lack of trust in the British public. It means one of two things. The first is that they have no plan. That is terrifying and gross incompetence. The alternative is that they have a plan and they don't trust us to be told what it is, as they think we are too stupid to realise that it won't be used for a few weeks. As someone who runs a business, this is an almost impossible situation. Lets say that the plan is that they will let everyone who has no underlying health conditions under 65 out, so long as those who are vulnerable are properly isolated from them, I will be in a position to start planning my staff rota when we reopen. I will also have some idea of how many of our customers we will be seeing, which will affect our opening times. If they say no more than 10 people in one place, then that means a very different thing for musicians than if we are only allowed 4. That will have a huge impact on our business. There are millions of other businesses in the same position. Having some idea of the duration and the exit strategy means I can plan the level of debt my business needs, and will dictate arrangements we make with some of the people we pay as part of our normal business.

My personal view is that if we had some sort of checklist as to the risks we personally were at and what risks we posed to other people, we could make an informed decision. As an example, in our house there are six people, all between 18 and 57, who have not got compromised immune systems. So long as we keep away from people who are at risk, we are unlikely to suffer serious issues. I am not saying we should be let out just yet, as the virus is still at its peak, but I would guess that we meet the criteria for release from lock down before people who have underlying conditions or are elderly. If we were given a heads up, then we could start planning. We could also start to generate the wealth that will eventually get the country back on its feet. I have been involved with local churches to try and sort out a community response. It is hard to plan when we have no idea when this will lift or who it will lift for.  A competent government would give us some idea of a how we can deal with it. Maybe we should all be given passes that say what we can and can't do. Travelling on public transport is an example. I don't need to at the moment, so maybe that should be enforced by law. My guess is that most transmission was on public transport, at busy supermarkets and in pubs and clubs before lockdown. It is crazy that there are no rules for small shops. I have witnessed some appallingly stupid behaviour in these recently. Maybe if the rules were laid out, then lock down could be raised earlier with sensible rules still in place. I'm not an expert, these are just musings, but I want to be treated like an adult.

I believe all of this is a smokescreen to deflect criticism from the fact that the health secretary is out of his depth and failing the nation. I don't think he's a criminal. He's just someone who has failed to step up. This has been clear for weeks. The answer is simple. The Government should ask someone within their ranks to step up and take over, who can display some sort of competence and who can get a plan together quickly. Personally I don't care who it is so long as they can get a grip. Surely there must be someone within the ranks of Tory MP's and Peers who can demonstrate such competence. If they don't, can the Labour Party, Lib Dems, SNP or anyone else lend them someone till this is over.

When we last had such a crisis, Winston Churchill made Clement Attlee his deputy. They appointed Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express armaments minister. Within weeks, the country had been completely transformed onto a war footing and Spitfires were being produced faster than the Luftwaffe could shoot them down. Pilots from the Commonwealth, Poland, Czechoslovakia and even the USA were drafted in. That's what happens when you have competent people in charge.

The horrific truth is that people are dying and for no good reason. This isn't through malice, it is through sheer incompetence. The government needs to get a grip.

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