Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 u-turns (Pandemic Journal: June 17)

200520 Johnson killed more brits than the blitz

How can a prime minister with an 80-seat majority be forced to change his mind on anything?

You may well ask. The answer is obvious: public opinion – Boris Johnson knows his politics (his real politics) is right on the edge of what the UK’s general public will accept. But he doesn’t know where the dividing line is; he thinks his ideas are all perfectly acceptable!

He only finds out where the line is when he crosses it. Here are four recent examples, courtesy of The Independent:

Free school meals

The prime minister is well-known for his enthusiasm on the sporting field – if not necessarily his skill. This time Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford beat Mr Johnson at what should be his own game, politics.

The call from the premiership footballer to U-turn on plans to scrap free school meal vouchers over the summer turbocharged a campaign that had already been running for weeks.

Once Tory MPs started to add their voices to calls for a change of heart it was time to drop the policy, but not before Mr Rashford had been dubbed the hero of the hour.

NHS surcharge

Boris Johnson announced in May that the £400 annual fee paid by non-EU migrants to use the NHS would be scrapped for health and care workers, just a day after defending the policy.

As the nation assembled on their doorsteps every Thursday night to clap for carers it had become increasingly untenable for NHS staff to be asked to pay extra, on top of their taxes, to use the health service.

Especially as it was inside that very health service where they were willingly risking their lives in the fight against coronavirus.

Bereavement scheme

There was an outcry when it emerged a new NHS bereavement scheme would apply to doctors and nurses but not to thousands of other critical staff, many of them low paid.

The scheme grants indefinite leave to remain in the UK to relatives of overseas born NHS staff who die fighting Covid-19. Introduced in April, there were almost immediate calls for it to be extended to other workers, including porters and cleaners.

Remote voting

The government was forced to offer concessions to MPs after howls of protests over plans to make them vote in person in the House of Commons.

The system was declared a farce even by normally loyal Tory MPs after politicians were forced to stand in a line more than a kilometre long to queue to vote.

Five reasons the UK death toll is so high (Pandemic Journal: June 14)

200320 coronavirus

This is from a website called The Conversation – you can read the full article here.

1. Lockdown was too late

The UK acted too slowly in imposing its lockdown on March 23, which allowed the initial infection to quickly spread out of control. This was the case with infections within the UK and those coming from abroad.

The first case of COVID-19 in the UK was on January 31 – that is almost two months before the imposition of the lockdown on March 23. Other countries, such as China and Italy, were much quicker to impose their full lockdowns

2. Infections are still out of control

Because the UK let the virus get out of control to begin with, it is taking longer than hoped to come down the other side of the epidemic curve – infections are still in the thousands each week.

The R number varies across the country, and it could be higher than one in some areas. Since deaths lag behind infections by two to three weeks, and R is not consistent, the numbers are not coming down as quickly as hoped.

3. Not all deaths were counted from the start

In the initial stages of the epidemic, the UK did not account for infections and deaths in settings other than hospitals, crucially leaving out those that took place in care homes.

Understanding the roles of hotspots, like care homes, and super spreaders – people who are responsible for infecting an especially large number of others – is crucial at the onset of an epidemic. The UK government should have been taking this into account from the end of January, not from April, when care home deaths began to be added to tallies.

4. Missing symptoms

The UK has been been much slower than other countries in telling people what COVID-19 symptoms to look out for, with a heavy focus on cough and fever.

A loss of taste and smell was added to the UK’s official list of symptoms on May 18, more than a month later than in France and almost a month after a study suggested these as clinical symptoms of infection.

Hence, in the initial stages of the COVID-19 spread, many people could have been unknowingly infected and be infectious and thus carried on with their normal activities, unwillingly passing on the virus and keeping R high.

5. Failure to test, trace and isolate

Another reason the UK is experiencing large number of COVID-19 deaths is that the country was late to instigate a large-scale testing, tracing and isolation strategy. Although some testing has been conducted, the stance in the UK was to encourage symptomatic people to solely isolate in order to prevent onwards transmission.

But in a situation where we do not know the extent of asymptomatic COVID-19 infection, it might have been better to encourage testing of symptomatic people and start the tracing of contacts of positive people sooner. This is how South Korea controlled its epidemic. In the UK, testing was not scaled up and manual contact tracing only launched on May 28.


A checklist of Boris Johnson’s failures to the end of May (Pandemic Journal: June 9)

200520 Johnson killed more brits than the blitz

I’ve had this for a while but have been unable to get to it because of the country (and other parts of the world) going crazy because of racism over the last few weeks.

The list is from Prole Star and it goes like this:

  • 90% of the world’s governments took precautions at airports such as quarantine and testing. The UK government was one of the 10% that did nothing allowing 18 million people to enter the country. Many from countries affected by coronavirus.

  • The UK government delayed the lockdown by 11 days against scientific advice while Boris Johnson dithered. Even when lockdowns were in place across the rest of Europe, the UK hadn’t even ordered cafes, restaurants and pubs to close. A recent report showed that if the lockdown had been implemented one week earlier it would have stopped 75% of deaths, that being around 30,000 lives in the current wave.

  • The UK government controversially abandoned test and contact tracing in March, again against scientific advice and the guidelines set out by the World Health Organisation. The test, trace strategy has allowed some countries to keep their death tolls in the hundreds.

  • The UK government allowed people to be released from hospitals into care homes without being tested for coronavirus leading to 22,000 deaths. They also “chose” not to test anyone in care homes themselves, which one Tory minister has admitted was a “huge mistake”

  • While Boris Johnson was dithering and failed to take any action he went on television claiming one solution could be “herd immunity”. A so-called solution that would have led to half a million deaths. Dommic Cummings the PMs chief advisor, who is seen by many as the man really running the country allegedly said “Protect the economy, and if some pensioners die, too bad” We have always been a nation of profit before people and the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted that.

  • A pandemic drill took place in 2016 which accurately predicted that the NHS would be in crisis in the event of a real pandemic. It showed the NHS unable to cope, with a lack of PPE for doctors and nurses and inadequate numbers of ventilators. The then Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s administration failed to act.

  • The UK government according to independent public health experts, despite anticipating the growth of the coronavirus epidemic, did nothing to prepare NHS Supply Chain capabilities for nearly two months, leading to shortages of PPE. While doctors were buying their own PPE or relying on donations, companies were shipping PPE abroad because they had been completely ignored by the UK government. A nurse from Chelmsford died from coronavirus after trying to buy his own PPE on eBay.

  • According to Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the government’s own Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), the government has undermined efforts to fight the pandemic and “more people are going to die” as a result. This is due to allowing special privileges for Boris Johnson’s advisor. Who travelled to Durham to his mother’s on what just happened to be the day his uncle died when his mother was obviously grieving and to Barnard Castle on what just happened to be his wife’s birthday. Professor West also a member of SPI-B has said it was imperative the public did not abandon social distancing despite the exceptions made for the PM’s chief aide.

  • However the police commissioner says people are now disregarding the lockdown and using Dominic Cummings as an excuse.

It isn’t because there has been an outbreak of an infectious disease that the government is coming under such criticism. It is the way they have responded to it.

Australia thought Johnson was bad BEFORE he eased lockdown (Pandemic Journal, June 1)

200601 London Covid

I haven’t been able to find a place for this on Vox Political so I’m putting it here.

It’s a report from Australia, panning Boris Johnson and the Tory government for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis up to the publication date, which was May 21 – 10 days ago at the time of writing. It says:

A rational person would question why Britain has fared so badly in the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a rich country with the sixth largest economy in the world, a proud history of public health and a National Health Service (NHS) arising from the ashes of World War II. This forms the central pillar of the welfare state, providing universal, comprehensive care to all citizens irrespective of ability to pay.

Despite these advantages, there has been an estimated excess death toll of more than 50,000 people, second only to the United States, with the highest deaths per million, in the world.

Why did it happen? The site goes back to 2008:

Two years after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition government embarked on their austerity program. This was an economically illiterate plan, drawing the false comparison between macroeconomics and household finances, an approach popularised by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

A hoodwinked public accepted their narrative and with it wage stagnation and cuts to public services: a monumental lie transferred the debt burden of bank bailouts onto the shoulders of the weakest. For the NHS, this meant a decade of de-funding and a reduction in the historical average annual increase in spending on health (4%-1%). Simultaneously the NHS was further restructured, a process that started in 1970s but accelerated under the fog of austerity.

A former NHS director-general for commissioning Mark Britnell explained it in 2010 like this: “In [the] future, the NHS will be a state insurance provider not a state deliverer.

“In [the] future ‘any willing provider’ from the private sector will be able to sell goods and services to the system. The NHS will be shown no mercy and the best time to take advantage of this will be in the next couple of years.”

The Health and Social Care Act 2012 ensured that advantage was taken, creating a fully marketised NHS. The Secretary of State’s legal “duty to provide” was removed and replaced with a “duty to promote” health services, abolishing the very premise of the NHS. New funding structures replicating United States private health insurance pools known as Clinical Commissioning Groups were set up to force the outsourcing of medical services.

QUANGOS (quasi non-governmental organisations) were created — NHS England and Public Health England — headed up by government appointees. Well established decentralised public health infrastructure was dismantled and institutional memory and expertise cast aside as part of 10,000 redundancies and a £700 million funding cut over five years.

Brexit is implicated:

The 2016 referendum on Brexit generated a groundswell of anti-establishment feeling. The pain of austerity was soothed with the balm of nationalism and a rejection of European bureaucracy. This returned a Leave vote, which plunged Britain into a political quagmire and bitter division.

A country in the midst of a productivity crisis, due to consecutive governments dismantling industry, casualising employment and financialising the economy, was also removing vital safety nets. Rising inequality, the vogue for zero hours contracts, and escalating living costs created precariousness with 10 million households without any savings.

By 2019, the NHS was on its knees: a decade of funding squeezes resulted in 17,000 bed cuts; 10,000 doctor vacancies; and 40,000 nursing vacancies. Britain now had the fewest number of doctors and hospital beds per capita in Western Europe.

This weakened health service and weakened population have been left to fend off this pandemic, with a misanthropic “Brexit before breathing” government at the helm.

With the groundwork completed, the profitable remnants of the NHS could now be turned over to business. The poor were no longer secure; their plight foretold by 1980s satirist Rick Mayall. “You see, in the good old days, you were poor, you got ill, and you died. And yet, and yet these days people seem to think they have some God given right to be cured!”

The 2019 general election was a crushing defeat for Labour. The Tories’ simple “Get Brexit Done” message, unremitting allegations of Labour anti-Semitism, a right-wing media onslaught and internal party divisions, led an emboldened Boris Johnson back to power with a landslide.

Preoccupied with Churchillian fantasies, securing his legacy, and relishing the prospect of shredding workers’ rights, environmental and public health protections in a trade deal with the US, his hands were full. Then came news from Wuhan of a deadly novel coronavirus, COVID-19, which caused some sufferers to develop serious breathing problems requiring ventilatory life support. Soon after, human-to-human spread was confirmed. Other countries, including South Korea, started reporting cases and on January 30 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a “public health emergency of international concern”.

But we know that Johnson wasn’t interested in Covid-19 at all. The article refers to a piece in the Sunday Times that revealed the extent of Johnson’s failures – but you’d be better-off reading this very blog’s piece about it here. The Aussie site continues:

“Boris Johnson skipped five COBRA [Cabinet briefing] meetings on the virus, calls to order protective gear were ignored and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears. Failings in February may have cost thousands of lives.”

Johnson had been preoccupied by personal matters and securing his historic Brexit. Emergency government COBRA meetings were led by others, despite growing international concerns. His ministers and scientific advisers gave multiple reassurances about how well prepared the NHS was and downplayed the significance of the pandemic threat.

The policy of herd immunity, as explained by the Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, was to slow transmission to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed as the population built natural immunity by getting infected. Britain was to ignore the fundamental infection control measures of testing, contact tracing and quarantine successfully followed in many countries.

Repeated warnings from the WHO to “test, test, test” fell on deaf ears and the condemned herd immunity policy was summed up by Johnson as: “One of the theories is that, you know, perhaps you could sort of take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population.”

By early March, several European countries including Britain had reported coronavirus deaths. Italy and Greece had closed schools and banned public gatherings. Despite the lack of clear government advice, some British organisations and sporting bodies decided to cancel events, however, Johnson chose to attend a Six Nations rugby match with 82,000 others.

Dramatic video footage from Northern Italy showed how its health system was being overwhelmed, despite having double the number of intensive care beds compared to Britain. Anaesthetist friends who worked in intensive care units (ICU) shared their alarm at the reckless inaction and lack of preparedness given the threat.

A survey published by Doctors Association UK showed a staggering 99% saying they felt the NHS was unprepared for the pandemic, and highlighting staff shortages and lack of protective equipment. Of the 18 million people who entered Britain from January to March, fewer than 300 were quarantined. On March 12, the government stopped mass testing and contact tracing.

Johnson had already set out his priorities in a speech on February 3 that went viral on Twitter: “… and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus would trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then, at that moment, humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing, at least, to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange.

“Some country ready to take off its Clarke Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing, as the super-charged champion of the right of populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

“And, here in Greenwich, in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you, in all humility, that the UK is ready for that role.”

Johnson’s commitment to freedom of exchange and his views on the threat of overpopulation tallied with his laissez faire approach to the pandemic. Several right-wing commentators warned against damaging the economy, preferring that the elderly and sick should perish for the greater good.

According to the March 22 Sunday Timesthe PM’s senior aide Dominic Cummings at a private engagement at the end of February, outlined the government’s strategy. “Those present say it was ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’.”

The British government allowed coronavirus to spread to afflict a population already weakened by austerity. Academic analysis estimated an excess 120,000 deaths due to austerity, along with reduced life expectancy and increased infant mortality. Policies intended to replicate the expensive, dysfunctional but highly profitable US health system would inevitably mean many more preventable deaths. The government’s inaction was entirely consistent and deliberate, guided by profit, not the preservation of life.

It gets worse:

Vietnam, with its land border with China and population of 96 million, reported no coronavirus deaths. The Indian state of Kerala, with a population of 34 million had a death toll in the hundreds. Both are testament to the effectiveness of simple, intensive efforts that could drastically reduce the spread of the disease and preserve life.

Britain’s approach of squandering valuable time to prepare, mixed messaging and downplaying of risk was having a very different impact. Hospital ICUs were starting to fill up with sick coronavirus patients, with deaths approaching 1000 a day at the peak. Health and care staff remained without adequate supplies of suitable personal protective equipment (PPE), with reports of some resorting to wearing plastic bin bags and home-made masks.

BBC Panorama documentary exposed how a government decision to re-classify coronavirus from a “high consequence” infectious disease to an infectious disease of lower consequence led to new recommendations that healthcare professionals use only plastic aprons and paper face masks. This was not based on science but on the grossly inadequate stockpiles of PPE.

A pandemic preparedness exercise in 2016 had highlighted the deficient stockpile of ventilators. The report’s recommendations were not implemented. If you fail to prepare, then you prepare to fail. This price was to be paid by more than 220 health and care workers who have so far died from coronavirus.

Multiple tragedies were unfolding. Patients fighting for life in ICUs, community spread unhindered, but perhaps most shocking was the fate of vulnerable, elderly care home residents. Contrary to having a “protective ring” around them, as claimed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, patients were being discharged to nursing homes irrespective of having been diagnosed with coronavirus or being tested, in policy described as a “stiff broom”, to free up capacity in hospitals.

A cardiologist described it like this: “Our policy was to let the virus rip and then ‘cocoon the elderly’. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry when you contrast that with what we actually did.

“We discharged known, suspected and unknown cases into care homes, which were unprepared, with no formal warning that the patients were infected, no testing available, and no PPE to prevent transmission. We actively seeded this into the very population that was most vulnerable.

“We let these people die without palliation. The official policy was not to visit care homes — and they didn’t (and still don’t).

So, after infecting them with a disease that causes an unpleasant ending, we denied our elders access to a doctor — denied GP visits — and denied admission to hospital. Simple things like fluids, withheld. Effective palliation like syringe drivers, withheld.”

As the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day was being commemorated, the generation that lived through the devastation of World War II was being decimated directly and indirectly, with one estimate of the toll being 22,000.

The lockdown gets a lashing:

Epidemiological modelling from Imperial College presented to government and advisory experts on March 12 now predicted that more than 250,000 people could die if the herd immunity plan was maintained, and recommended urgent action.

Other European countries had closed schools and universities. With mounting public and media pressure, it took a further 11 days before schools were closed and public gatherings prohibited. A piecemeal partial lockdown began, but it was too little, too late.

Construction workers were classified as essential and continued working. Public transport provisions in London were reduced, producing crowded trains and buses. Lockdown is a blunt tool without the necessary measures of testing, contact tracing and effective isolation. Herd immunity was continuing in all but name.

With all routine healthcare suspended, workload for general practitioners and NHS hospital laboratories was dramatically reduced. Public resources were available to set up a nationwide decentralised, integrated testing sites and laboratories using experienced personnel and existing IT systems.

Instead, these were overlooked in favour of setting up three new public-private Lighthouse Labs, which according to their website “are being actively supported by pharmaceutical companies GSK and AstraZeneca, who are providing access to data and resources to further increase our capacity as we scale up at record pace. An extensive supply chain of resources including support from Amazon, Boots and the Royal Mail, alongside the Wellcome Trust has been established to bring further resources to our facilities.”

GP surgeries were bypassed in favour of a network of 50 regional testing sites to be run by facilities management giant Serco and management consultants Deloitte. People with suspected coronavirus were directed to the telephone helpline and website of the outsourced 111 service. Experienced NHS doctors were excluded from managing the unfolding crisis and replaced by unqualified staff guided by a computer based flow chart.

Big Tech companies have been awarded contracts, including Microsoft, Google, Amazon Web Services, Palantir Technology UK and Faculty. A controversial contact tracing app produced by Faculty, has been piloted in the Isle of Wight, despite concerns around privacy and cyber security and potential for mission creep towards mass surveillance.

Every problem had to have a private sector solution, rather than the tried and tested public sector now lying idle. The option to rebuild vital public health infrastructure was ignored as Johnson’s government doubled down on privatisation.

And the Tory media get a mauling:

Daily briefings from Downing Street revealed the media strategy to be deployed. The three line slogan, “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” was clear and effective, as the majority of the public restricted themselves to essential travel, shopping and working from home where possible.

A furlough scheme guaranteed 80% of salaries for millions of people. Worryingly, accident and emergency departments experienced a significant slowdown in activity and there was an 80% reduction in suspected cancer referrals from GPs. The “stay home” message and fear of catching the virus led to an indirect pandemic toll, as journalists, with few exceptions, failed to cross-examine and scrutinise government decisions.

“Led by the science” became a recurring expression that alerted some of us that perhaps this group would be the future scapegoats. When Imperial College epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson was publicly exposed for having ignored social distancing advice by meeting his married lover, it did not come as a complete surprise. It provided an opportunity to undermine his projections that had led to the lockdown.

On VE Day, May 8, the right-wing media were in celebratory mood, fusing the victory over fascism 75 years earlier with victory over the virus and an anticipated easing of lockdown. Two days later, Johnson obliged with a new slogan “Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives” to accompany his address to the nation. It was no longer deemed necessary to stay home.

Despite high daily new cases of about 20,000, disproportionately low levels of testing and minimal contact tracing, the government was encouraging people to return to work and was planning to reopen schools. The next day, those without an alternative or in greatest need of income were again crowded onto public transport.

Independent experts who had been openly critical warned of a second wave of infection. Teachers and their unions demanded clarity around plans to mitigate risk and maintain social distancing — difficult with young children who could be potential carriers of infection back to their families. Some journalists responded by portraying teachers as being neglectful of their duties.

On the back of a decade of austerity, there has been a rapid cull of the sick and elderly. Even a fool has a 50% chance to be correct with a binary choice. Implement pandemic preparedness report: yes or no? Follow test, trace and isolate policy: yes or no? Ensure adequate PPE for all that require it: yes or no? Prevent the spread of infection to the most vulnerable in society: yes or no? Utilise existing spare public capacity to manage the epidemic: yes or no? Award private corporations contracts to provide services for which they have no expertise or experience: yes or no? Introduce untested tracking mobile phone app with significant concerns: yes or no?

The ideologically-driven British government has worsened the social determinants of health and repeatedly chosen courses of action that would increase the death toll.

Herd immunity strategy is still the basis of the government’s approach. The deliberate crafting of a situation in which thousands of preventable deaths are being allowed to occur has been massaged by a complicit media. Those responsible are protected by Crown Indemnity, immune from prosecution for the decisions taken while conducting their public roles.

This perverse injustice has to change. This is the pandemic public health experts have been warning us about. Preparedness and a timely, robust response are our only defences. In this, the government’s failure has been monumental.

The BBC and much of the mainstream media have failed to scrutinise and hold to account the actions of our leaders therefore we must strengthen and support alternative media voices. We can all be agents of change by explaining to others the reality of our current predicament, and becoming more engaged. We need to break the grip of the Big Tech companies who seek to replace real world services with virtual, unproven technologies with obvious potential for mass surveillance and control.

We need a grassroots movement to push back against neoliberalism, increasingly dependent upon authoritarianism to maintain the status quo. More immediate action should support key workers and the teachers, who are demanding clear and safe measures be taken before they return to work. As a matter of urgency, we must amplify the calls for mass testing, tracing and isolation, and support coronavirus-infected people to remain in isolation, thereby breaking the transmission of this virus.

What do you think? Do the Aussies have a point?

The Pandemic, ‘The Plague’ and the government that made it worse (Pandemic Journal, May 24)

200520 Johnson killed more brits than the blitz

For my second article on Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, I intend to focus on the political aspect – and how it relates to the catastrophe that is the way the UK’s Conservative government has handled the Covid-19 crisis.

In The Plague, the “calamity” that befalls the citizens of fictionalised Oran is an allegory for France’s military defeat in 1940 and the subsequent Nazi rule.

The Afterword to my copy, by Tony Judt, states that “Camus’s account of the coming of rats echoed a widespread view of the divided condition of France itself in 1940: ‘It was as though the very soil on which our houses were built was purging itself of an excess of bile, that it was letting boils and abscesses rise to the surface, which up to then had been devouring it inside’.”

It seems, to This Writer, that the same could be said for the run-up to the UK general election of December 2019. Struggling under the minority governments of first Theresa May and then Boris Johnson, the country had reached a political stalemate. The Tories had spent two years doing nothing but push for a departure from the European Union that every other political organisation in the country knew would harm the vast majority of people in the country. That situation was worsened after Johnson became prime minister, with the alleged backing of a shadowy group of hedge fund bosses who intended to make billions of pounds by betting on the collapse of many big-name businesses, if not the economy itself – which was stagnating while this drama drained the energy from all other aspects of politics.

When Johnson demanded an early election, the other parties agreed more out of exhaustion than for any other reason. They hoped that the ineptitude of the May Ministry, and the apparent corruption of the Johnson Ministry (so far) would tip the electorate into voting the Conservatives out.

But they miscalculated. Johnson was swept back into office with a massive 80-seat majority, on the strength of a simple slogan that he would “Get Brexit Done” (and never mind how damaging that departure would be) coupled with the result of an unremitting five-year campaign of hostility toward then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in which he was vilified as a Communist and an anti-Semite (neither claim bore even the remotest resemblance to the facts).

So, when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the UK in a tide that, at first, Johnson made absolutely no effort to control (he advocated a “herd immunity” strategy that suggested we should “take it on the chin”, allow as many people to be infected as possible, and hope thereby to produce enough people immune to the disease that the nation would be able to weather it without suffering much damage to the economy. It was our ability to generate money for the ruling class that was all-important to him, as exemplified by the comment attributed to his chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, who asked who cares “if a few old people die”.

In these circumstances, could anybody be blamed for echoing the Jesuit priest Paneloux in his initial reaction: “My brethren, you have deserved it.”

In the first few weeks of Covid-19 penetration, people in the UK did not seem to realise what was happening – because we weren’t told, and because the Tory government had deliberately made itself unable to track the progress of the disease, let alone treat it. Plans had been allowed to fall out-of-date, advice to stock up on protective equipment had been ignored and testing for the disease was abandoned early, due to a shortage of testing kits. None of this was reported to the public in straight terms and the government refused to call the unfolding disaster by its proper name. Borders remained open and people continued in their businesses until it was too late. As in The Plague, “In appearance, nothing had changed”, “The town was inhabited by people asleep on their feet”.

But this could not go on for long. People notice when their friends and relatives start coughing and struggling to breathe, when their relatives are carted off to hospital, never to return. Pubs and shops were closing their doors, days before Johnson announced his limited lockdown, and before the limited death figures provided by UK hospitals alone turned the pandemic into a scandal.

Belatedly, and grudgingly, the Tories acted – imposing a limited lockdown. Even at its harshest, construction workers were still employed every day, along with other “key workers” as defined by the Tory government.

Most of us were told to stay at home and to observe strict guidance that kept us at least two metres away from anybody else (apart from the people who lived with us), and to follow rigid rules on cleanliness. The Conservative government and its servants considered itself to be above these rules, in the way that the Nazi regime imposed curfews and controls on the French (and, in The Plague, the authorities imposed ever-stricter controls on the townspeople): for example, Johnson himself caught Covid-19 by ignoring social distancing rules while, as I write this, Cummings is mired in a scandal over several journeys he took to his parents’ home town of Durham, including one apparently for his mother’s 71st birthday, and an Easter trip to a nearby castle. The outcry over this has been so great that he is unlikely to remain in-post, but this is a Tory government; he is expected to remain behind the scenes until he can be restored to an official position at a later date.

In many ways, the lockdown seems to have allowed the Tories to continue some of their darker business with less hindrance – and with an excuse. So the massively increased number of deaths in care homes went largely unreported in March and April, only coming to our attention after tens of thousands of people had died – representing a huge saving in benefit payments to “useless eaters”, as far as the Conservatives were concerned. Under their policies, people with Covid-19 had been deliberately shipped from hospitals into care homes that did not have the facilities to isolate them, and they provided no guidelines to restrict staff from moving between homes operated by the same employer, meaning that the virus had free movement between these otherwise-closed environments.

The care home deaths represented an increase of 31 per cent on normal levels for the same period of the year. Proportionately worse was the number of deaths among people with learning disabilities – 45 per cent. The Conservative government had actively attempted to suppress reporting of this, and it is not yet clear why ministers attempted to do so. Clearly, somebody has a guilty conscience.

Promises to help people suffering as a result of the lockdown have been broken willy-nilly. Disabled people claiming benefits have been forced to await the end of the lockdown on “assessment phase” pay while Department for Work and Pensions officers handled no less than two million new claims for Universal Credit as businesses laid off their workers. Those appealing against wrong decision have also been left to wait – unpaid. Vulnerable people, isolating in their homes, were promised home delivery of groceries – but the supermarkets’ lists were overloaded immediately, meaning many went without. The government itself promised parcels of essentials to households considered most in danger – but left many people with serious conditions off their lists, while even those who were considered eligible were forced to wait weeks before the unmarked boxes turned up.

Attempts to gain supplies of PPE (personal protective equipment) failed time and time again – often because the Tories ignored offers. Pleas to industrialists to build much-needed ventilators resulted in nothing – or in goods that were unusable. Promises to re-impose mass testing became a bad joke, most notably with the claim to be carrying out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. As I write this, on May 24, it is unlikely that this target has yet been reached. Health Secretary Matt Hancock lied bare-faced to the public about it on April 30 but was caught out. Normally, a falsehood of this magnitude would be a resignation offence, but Tories like him have decided they are above normal demands and simply won’t go.

Contrast this behaviour with that of Neil Ferguson, the advisor who was found to have breached the “no travelling” rule to visit a lover, and resigned immediately the fact became public.

(And contrast that with the behaviour of Dominic Cummings after it was revealed that he had made two – possibly three – 260-mile journeys to Durham.)

All the while, as with the Nazis in World War II, the Tory propaganda machine has been working overtime.

When Johnson emerged from hospital after his (alleged) bout with Covid-19, the media treated it as though it was the Second Coming – ignoring the fact that his own idiocy had put him in intensive care in the first place. He was hailed as a hero, simply for being rich enough to be able to afford the best medical care in the country.

During his hospital stay, and throughout all the weeks thereafter, he has presided over the greatest peacetime slaughter of UK citizens in many generations. More than 62,000 excess deaths have taken place, leading to claims by protesters that has has killed more British people than the Blitz (this is correct, by the way: the death toll of the Blitz was 40,000 people).

But Tory propaganda, pushed by their puppets in the mainstream media, has it that their policies to deal with Covid-19 have been a massive success. The UK has suffered the second-largest number of deaths in the world, beaten only by the United States of America. In proportionate terms, taking into account the sizes of those two countries’ populations, the UK death toll has been the worst in the world.

The Tories continue to pump out the lie that they have done well, in slavish obedience to the “Big Lie” doctrine of the Nazi propagandist Goebbels – that if you repeat a lie often enough, the majority of people will accept it as the truth. They’re currently working to convince us that it will be safe to send our children back to school on June 1, while providing no evidence to support the claim. In fact, information from other countries suggests the exact opposite, and that any such move will lead to a second wave of Covid-19 infections that could be much worse than the first.

The real heroes of the lockdown are, as in The Plague, the ordinary people who have been doing what they can. Faceless, uninspiring perhaps, certainly unheroic: Shopping for neighbours who can’t go out, leaving the goods in their porch to ensure no contact that could transmit the infection; phoning (or using social media to contact) people who would otherwise be completely cut off from the rest of us, to make sure, not only that they have the means to survive, but also that they have the warmth of some human friendship; and alerting the authorities to suspected cases of infection so they can be handled at the earliest opportunity.

In the novel, the point is made again and again: “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency”, “not doing it would have been incredible at the time”.

In the UK, in the coronavirus crisis, it goes both ways; we fight the disease with decency, and it’s how we fight the mistakes engendered by political corruption as well. It’s the only way.

Judt states, “Camus was uncomfortable with the smug myth of heroism that had grown up in post-war France, and he abhorred the tone of moral superiority with which self-styled former Resisters… looked down upon those who did nothing.” He says that, like the narrator of The Plague, the author refuses to “become an over-eloquent eulogist of a determination and heroism to which he attaches only a moderate degree of importance”.

This is what the people of the UK should do now. Those who can help, are helping – not because they want to be heroes, or praised as heroes by a government to whom heroism is nothing more than a public relations tool, but because “not doing it would have been incredible”.

But the Big Lie remains, because the Tories have access to our homes every day, via their daily Covid-19 briefing. And while many are watching it with increasing scepticism, if they’re still bothering at all, many more are accepting its messages unquestioningly, blind to the political slant that informs it.

Judt again: “In Camus’s view it was inertia, or ignorance, which accounted for people’s failure to act.” But he adds that “It does not follow from this that the plagues that humankind brings down upon itself are ‘natural’ or unavoidable”. So the effects of Covid-19 could have been much reduced if the UK had enjoyed a more responsible government. But that would have required the electorate to have demanded one. So Judt’s next comment, that “assigning responsibility for them [the plagues – either natural (Covid-19) or man-made (Conservative rule)] – and thus preventing them in the future – may not be an easy matter”, rings disturbingly true. And it leads to an even more disturbing question.

Judt goes on to describe the “‘banality of evil’… the idea that unspeakable crimes can be committed by very unremarkable [people] with clear consciences”. That suggestion seems to have been borne out by the behaviour of the Tories during the Covid-19 crisis.

But how do we stop it? How do we prevent it?

Much has been said of the kind of society we want after the current crisis is over, with claims that the current political status quo cannot be allowed to remain, having proven lacking. The same is said in The Plague. But in the book, “amnesia sets in” as soon as the crisis has passed. Life returns to the old routine and no attempt is made (at least in the pages of that novel) to change the status quo.

Are we afraid?

This is an idea that is not in the book, but is worth raising here: that people are less concerned with creating conditions that would increase their own (and others’) happiness and prosperity than with preventing a possible descent into unhappiness and ruin.

So they stay with the status quo. “Better the devil you know”, as the saying runs. But there is no status quo, in reality. Change happens, whether you want it or not. Consider the huge changes in our lives wrought by the internet and the Information Age, without which you would not be reading this now. Consider the changes to your personal well-being brought about by the financial crisis of 2008 and the Tory-wrought austerity of the following years, that depressed wages, pushed thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of benefit claimants to their deaths and stifled the economy. Unless you are a member of the ruling – Tory – class, you are far worse-off now than you would have been if the financial crisis had happened, but you were not responsible for it. You have simply been made to pay the price.

Current Tory plans mean that you will be made to pay the price of the Covid-19 crisis, too, with raids planned on the pension fund, increased taxes and the cancellation of pay rises for people working in the public sector – including the NHS doctors, nurses and other staff who have worked themselves into exhaustion, trying to save as many lives as possible.

Now is the time, while the lockdown, and the crisis, continues, for us to discuss the changes our society needs to make, to reward those who genuinely deserve it, rather than those who take advantage because they can, and to prevent harm falling on the blameless. What are you willing to do? How far are you willing to go? What are you willing to risk?


Then you will gain nothing.

And in the future, you are likely to lose far more.

Because, as Camus wrote, much as you might want to fall back into the comfort of complacency and forgetfulness, “the plague… never dies or vanishes entirely… it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing… it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and… perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city”.

And you will have no cure – because you didn’t bother to work on it when you had the chance.

Telling stories

200521 Doctor Who blood on his knife

Blood on his knife: the Doctor reveals that Kal is the assassin in a pivotal part of 100,000 BC.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately.

Lockdown seems finally to have given me time to savour some of the world’s better literary endeavours; I’ve already mentioned The Plague, and other recent reads have included The Hunchback of Notre DameRobinson Crusoe, and Sense and Sensibility, along with Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories and the Jeeves series by PG Wodehouse.

Yesterday afternoon I read the novelisation of the first Doctor Who story, An Unearthly Child – and, believe it or not, this was the one that started me thinking about story structure; the kind of story people set out to tell and the devices they use to tell it. It’s not great literature, much as I adore the noveliser, dear old Tewwance Dicks – but it’s straightforward and simple.

I ended up deconstructing the story – the main story about cave-people, subtitled 100,000 BC, not the introductory episode, which set up the premise of the entire series – and came to some surprising conclusions!

It begins with two protagonists who are vying for the position of tribal leader. Za is the son of the old chief, who has recently died. Kal is a newcomer to the tribe who wants to take over. Traditionally, the chief is the one who knows how to make fire, but neither of these two knows how to do it; Za’s father died before handing him the secret and Kal has never had a chance to find out.

(Is this a story about mankind’s discovery of fire, then? No. Fire has clearly been discovered already. But Doctor Who was intended to be at least partly educational, especially in its historic stories, which include this one. What, then?)

We are encouraged to consider Kal as the baddie. I wonder whether it’s because he’s the outsider; that would suggest the original writer, Anthony Coburn, was playing on the viewer’s (remember this was a TV show first) own tribal prejudices. He makes this easy because, when Kal happens upon a man who’s casually making fire, his first instinct is to attack. So he wallops the Doctor over the head while he’s trying to have a sly puff on his pipe, and carries him off to the tribe.

It looks like this is going to be a very simple story: Kal gets the Doc to reveal the secret of fire to him, and becomes tribal chief. But that wouldn’t be very interesting or exciting, and it would mean the bad guy wins – we can’t have that.

So it turns out that, when Kal demands fire, the newly-recovered Doctor discovers that his matches were left behind when he was carried off. And his travelling companions are no more able to help when they turn up, having followed him to the tribe’s caves only to be captured themselves (dummies!). They all end up imprisoned in the ‘Cave of Skulls’, a nasty little hole full of dead people’s heads – all with holes of their own, so we have an intimation of the fate that may befall our heroes.

(Now what? Nobody’s getting anything they want!)

Enter Old Mother. She was the mate of the old chief – the firemaker – and blames his ability to make fire for his death. My opinion? She’s a senile old bat; there’s nothing in the story to indicate that the old chief died because of fire. Still, she waits for a chance to nip out to the ‘Cave of Skulls’ and tries to kill our heroes (fat chance; she’s old and weak) but ends up releasing them instead.

Za also wakes up and realises something’s up. He trots off to the Cave of Skulls too, with his girlfriend Hur (who’s worried her father will give her to Kal if the baddie gets to be tribal leader), and finds the Doctor and the others recently escaped. They pursue. This looks like a set-up for a major development!

In the jungle (yeah, there’s a jungle!) our heroes realise they’re being pursued and hide, in time to see Za turn up. But he’s just realised that he’s being pursued as well – a sabre-toothed tiger does a number on him and leaves him for dead.

Major development ahead: our heroes are all set to run off and leave Hur weeping over Za’s body when Barbara (the compassionate one) decides they can’t leave the cave people like this and drags them back to help out instead. They tend to Za’s injuries and make a stretcher to get him (and them) out of harm’s way – teaching him a new word, “friend”, along the way. (Is this about early humans learning the meaning and value of friendship, then?)

Meanwhile, Kal discovers Old Mother in the cave and she tells him she has released the Doctor’s party – so, enraged, he kills her with his knife. Then he raises the alarm and lies to the other tribespeople that Za has killed her and set our heroes free. So we can see that Old Mother is nothing more than a cipher; she existed only to push the plot along by releasing the Doctor’s party and getting killed to give Kal a chance to show us he’s a wrong ‘un.

Before long, the Doctor’s group, Za and Hur are recaptured and dragged back to the caves (again!), where the Doctor traps Kal into admitting that he murdered Old Mother; it’s simple logic – if Za did the killing, his knife would be covered in blood but it isn’t. The Doctor baits Kal into drawing his own knife, simply by saying that Za’s is the better blade (Kal’s pride won’t accept it) – and of course the old woman’s blood is all over it. Kal does a runner.

(So is this the meaning of the story? That you can get a villain to give the game away by tricking them with logic? Not exactly the most useful message, unless you’re likely to be outsmarting baddies yourself every day. Still, it’s the Doctor who unmasks the villain, and that makes it important.)

(No, the meaning of the story, it seems, is that an individual may be stronger than other individuals, but cannot be stronger than a whole group. It is the tribe that drives Kal away. Communism! Golly. And this was on the BBC!)

All’s well then. right? The baddie’s been seen off and our heroes are free to go, having made friends with Za, who’s now chief. Wrong. The Doctor and the others end up right back in the ‘Cave of Skulls’, as firemakers to the tribe. So much for the value of friendship!

They get on with working out how to make fire the old-fashioned way, and there’s a handy bit of instruction for anyone who doesn’t know. I think somewhere around here, Kal comes back and has the big fight with Za that, let’s be honest, we’ve been expecting since the start. Of course Za ends up the winner.

The Doctor and the scientific companion, Ian, succeed in making fire, and show Za how to make it. He’s delighted, because he’s convinced that it will make him chief – but the Doctor says everyone in the tribe should be shown how to make fire; in his tribe, the firemaker is the least important person because they can all make it.

(Perhaps this is the message of the piece: it takes more to make a leader than being able to do something that anyone else can manage.)

Now the only problem is the fact that our heroes are still stuck in a cave. Fortunately they have one more weapon to use: superstition. They set four skulls on fire and kid the guard that they’ve died and the skulls are their restless spirits, come to do him in. He runs away like a sissy and they escape.

It’s a really simple story, but it shows how particular obstacles are necessary to make the narrative interesting. The Doctor has to lose his matches but even then, the gang could have made fire with the tools to hand. Old Mother has to release them and get killed, not only to create the possibility of an alliance with Za but also to show Kal’s villainy. Kal’s mischief has to be shown up in front of the whole tribe so they learn the value of banding together. And the Doctor’s party has to have made fire in order to escape using the trick they employ.

The story is moved forward by characters acting according to their natures: if Kal wasn’t a git, he wouldn’t have kidnapped the Doctor; if Old Mother didn’t hate fire, the gang wouldn’t have escaped; if Barbara wasn’t compassionate, Za wouldn’t have been brought on-side (as much as it was possible to do so); if the tribe weren’t superstitious primitives, our heroes would not have been able to escape.

It works. It all fits together nicely. But it’s a bit slow. Still, it’s turned up a surprising author’s message (Communism!).

If I get a chance to go into this storytelling malarky any further, I’ll see if I can show up ways to make the story more interesting.

Life imitates art – unfortunately (Pandemic Journal, May 19)

200519 Albert Camus

Albert Camus: not only did he know his stuff when he wrote The Plague, he was goalie for a footie team and knew how to look cool. But he isn’t in charge of the UK. Sadly, Boris Johnson is.

Last week I re-read The Plague, the Nobel Prize-winning novel by French Absurdist Albert Camus, covering almost the same subject as that which currently concerns most people in the world.

The similarities are startling, in fact – and I wanted to describe them for you in an article (or several).

The first aspect of the novel that hits home to today’s reader should be the abject unpreparedness of the characters for any kind of epidemic illness in their midst.

I should explain that the story is set in the Algerian town of Oran, whose citizens are mostly concerned with making money. Some may see a similarity with the UK under the Conservative government! At the time in which it is set (194-, as these novels invariably describe themselves), Algeria is a French colony and major decisions about Oran are made by the colonial authorities.

The plague – bubonic plague in this case, or at least, that’s how the doctors consider it – first manifests itself in the appearance, all over the town, in increasing frequency and ever-greater numbers, of dead rats. The human beings who encounter them simply pick them up and get rid of them, without considering any repercussions – making themselves easy prey for the contagion, which at first manifests itself in individuals (of course).

The protagonist, Dr Bernard Rieux, calls up a few other doctors and discovers around 20 similar cases over a few days – almost all of them fatal. So he asks Dr Richard – president of the Association of Doctors in Oran – if new patients can be isolated.

“There’s nothing I can do,” Richard said. The measure would have to be taken by the Prefect. In any case, who told you there was any risk of infection?”

“Nothing tells me that there is, but the symptoms are disturbing.”

However, Richard felt that “he was not qualified”. All he could do was to mention it to the authorities.

If he indeed goes through with that, the authorities do nothing. Isn’t that similar to the situation in the UK? Boris Johnson was notified of the existence and potential harm likely to be caused by Covid-19 as early as November 2019 (if not before) and did nothing.

As long as each doctor was not aware of more than two or three cases, no one thought to do anything. But, after all, someone only had to decide to do an addition, and the tally was disturbing. In barely a few days the number of fatal cases multiplied, and it was clear to those who were concerned with this curious illness that they were dealing with a real epidemic.

The Johnson government would have been made aware of similar disturbing figures via SAGE meetings (among others) during the early part of the year. But nothing was done. Why? Perhaps my next quotation alludes to the reason – a speech by an older doctor, Castel:

“I don’t need tests. I spent part of my life working in China, and I saw a few cases in Paris, twenty years ago – though no one dared put a name to it at that time. Public opinion is sacred: no panic, above all no panic.”

Do you think that’s what happened here? That the government refused to address the facts of Covid-19 because Johnson and his cronies didn’t want to cause a panic? We know they were – and remain – highly concerned with the economy, and seemed desperate to keep everybody at work until absolutely the last minute.

Moving on, Rieux succeeds in persuading the Prefect’s office to appoint a health commission. Still the public are being kept in the dark:

“It’s true that people are starting to worry,” Richard agreed, “and gossip exaggerates everything. The Prefect told me, ‘Let’s act quickly if you like, but keep quiet about it.’ Anyway, he is sure that it’s a false alarm.”

And how about this:

“Do you know,” Castel said, “that the departement has no serum?”

“I know. I phoned the warehouse. The manager was flabbergasted. It has to be brought from Paris.”

So, in the book, the characters had no medication with which to treat the plague. The authorities were unprepared – just as the Johnson government failed to prepare for Covid-19 – despite years of warnings – and did not stock up on ventilators, personal protective equipment, and testing kits or make sure the NHS had the capacity to handle an outbreak of the magnitude Covid-19 eventually became.

I like to think that the discussions in the book, among those who are aware of the plague at this point, may have been similar to those in SAGE and the Cabinet, viz:

The Prefect was pleasant, but nervous.

“Let’s get started, gentlemen,” he said. “Do I have to summarize the situation?”

Richard thought there was no need. The doctors knew the situation already. The question was merely to decide on the proper course of action.

“The question,” old Castel said bluntly, is to decide whether we are dealing with the plague or not.”

Two or three doctors protested, while the others appeared hesitant. As for the Prefect, he leapt up in his seat and automatically turned towards the door, as though checking that it had really prevented this enormity from spreading down the corridor. Richard announced that in his opinion they should not give way to panic; all they could say for certain was that it was an infection with inguinal complications; and it was dangerous, in science as in life, to jump to conclusions. Old Castel, who was calmly chewing his yellow moustache, turned his clear eyes towards Rieux. Then he looked benevolently over the rest of the company and announced that he knew very well it was plague, but that, of course, if they were to acknowledge the fact officially, they would have to take stern measures. He knew that, underneath, this was what held his colleagues back and as a result, not to upset them, he was quite willing to state that it was not plague. The Prefect got annoyed and said that in any event that was not a sensible approach.

“The important thing,” Castel said, “is not whether the approach is sensible, but whether it gets us thinking.”

As Rieux had said nothing, they asked his opinion.

“It’s an infection, similar to typhoid, but with swelling of the lymph nodes and vomiting. I lanced some of the bubos. In that way I was able to have an analysis made in which the laboratory thinks it can detect the plague bacillus. However, to be precise, we must say that certain specific modifications of the microbe do not coincide with the classic description of plague.”

Richard emphasized that this meant they should not rush to judgement and that they would at least have to wait for the statistical result of the series of analyses, which had begun a few days earlier.

“When a microbe,” Rieux said after a brief silence, “is capable of increasing the size of the spleen four times in three days, and of making the mesenteric ganglia the size of an orange and the consistency of porridge, that is precisely when we should rush to do something. The sources of infections are multiplying. At this rate, if the disease is not halted, it could kill half the town within the next two months. Therefore it doesn’t matter whether you call it plague or growing pains. All that matters is that you stop it killing half the town.

Richard felt that they should not paint too black a picture, and that in any case there was no proof of contagion since the relatives of his patients were still unaffected.

When Dr Richard appears in the novel, I can’t help but picture Dominic Cummings.

“But others have died,” Rieux pointed out. “And, of course, contagion is never absolute, because if it were, we should have endless exponential growth and devastating loss of population. It’s not a matter of painting a black picture; it’s a matter of taking precautions.”

Picture Boris Johnson being told this, back in February/early March. We know what he said, don’t we?

However, Richard thought he could sum the situation up by saying that if they were to halt the disease, assuming it did not stop of its own accord…

Herd immunity, anybody?

… they had to supply the serious preventive health measures provided for in law; that, to do so, they would have to acknowledge officially that there was an outbreak of plague; …

And isn’t this exactly what Johnson brought in after his (and Cummings’) herd immunity nonsense was shown up for what it was?

… that there was no absolute certainty on that score; and consequently that they should consider the matter.

Richard hesitated and looked at Rieux.

“Sincerely, tell me what you think: are you certain that this is plague?”

“You’re asking the wrong question. It is not a matter of vocabulary, but a matter of time.”

“Your opinion, then,” said the Prefect, “is that even if this is not plague, then the preventive health measures that would be appropriate in the event of plague ought none the less to be applied?”

“If I really must have an opinion, then that is it.”

Wouldn’t the UK be in a far better situation now if, when the government was still arguing over whether and how Covid-19 was affecting the nation, it had adopted the appropriate preventive health measures in good time – as (for example) New Zealand did?

(I note in the news today that New Zealand appears to have eliminated Covid-19 entirely).

As it is, in the novel, no decision is reached (just as, in the UK, Johnson didn’t impose the appropriate preventive measures).

In the midst of general annoyance, Rieux left. A few moments later, in a suburb which smelled of frying oil and urine, a woman screaming to death, her groin covered in blood, was turning her face to him.

The day after the conference, the Prefecture print up some posters and post them in “the least obtrusive corners of the town”. These posters play down the seriousness of the situation but suggest preventive measures which, “if they were interpreted and applied in the proper way… would put a definite stop to any threat of epidemic”.

It advised the inhabitants to observe the most rigorous hygiene…

Remember when Boris Johnson was telling us all to wash our hands and keep our hands away from our faces?

In addition, it was obligatory for families to declare any cases diagnosed by the doctor and agree to isolation of their patients…

Self-isolation, anybody?

(In fact, in the book, it’s isolation in special hospital wards – but these soon fill up.)

Moving on…

Rieux had a meeting with Castel. The serum had not arrived.

That’s like PPE, and ventilators, of course.

The measures that had been taken were insufficient, that was quite clear. As for the ‘specially equipped wards’, he knew what they were: two outbuildings hastily cleared of other patients, their windows sealed up and the whole surrounded by a cordon sanitaire. If the epidemic did not stop of its own accord, it would not be defeated by the measures that the local administration had dreamed up.

Is this not parallel with the situation in the UK, right before the lockdown was announced?

Sure enough, in three days the two buildings were full.

Richard thought that they could requisition a school and provide an auxiliary hospital.

Nightingale hospitals, anyone?

As the plague progresses, the Prefect decides to seek instructions from the State government, so Rieux provides a report that could be sent along with a request for instructions, in which he includes a clinical description, and statistics.

The Prefect steps up measures being taken:

Houses of sick people were to be closed and disinfected, their relatives put in preventive quarantine…

I take it back. This is self-isolation!

Oh, and the serum turns up! There’s enough for the cases currently being treated, but not if the epidemic were to spread. In response to Rieux’s telegram, he’s told the emergency supply is exhausted and that they have started to manufacture new stocks.

And that’s exactly like the situation with PPE and ventilators!

At more or less this point, the Prefect receives an official telegram:




The similarites between the book and our life, here in the UK, now, are striking, aren’t they?

We may conclude that Johnson and his government had plenty of warning about what would happen if a pandemic infection hit the UK and they were not prepared for it.

Johnson himself is supposed to be literate, so why didn’t he have the sense to heed the warning of this novel? I studied it as a teenager so he has no excuse.


Ah yes…

The author is French and Johnson is a notorious racist.

The Box (Pandemic Journal: May 14)

200514 cardboard box

The box: this is just a representative image as I did not see the actual box myself.

It appeared out of nowhere at the end of their drive: the box.



Square. About yay high.

Nobody else on the street had one.

Nobody could say what it meant or why it was there.

The family, on whose drive it had arrived, regarded it suspiciously.

They found no distinguishing marks and it was sealed, so they couldn’t see inside.

They listened to it. Not a sound.

Eventually, from a safe distance (minimum of two metres) and using a broom handle, they even poked it.

It didn’t explode so they took it into the house.

The family in question had been grateful for the distraction as life had become difficult recently.

The son, having had treatment for cancer which had devastated his immune system, was on the “high risk” list after the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK, and his parents were likewise banned from leaving the family home for at least 12 weeks.

This made the weekly shopping trip for groceries something of a challenge.

A neighbour had offered to do it for them, but had fallen ill recently, meaning the family had to try to get a delivery slot with a local supermarket.

This was more easily said than done. At first, all available slots were taken.

Then, when one became available, the son was told he was disqualified because his NHS number did not tally with his other identity details.

(This took a while to sort out and, inevitably, it was the officials who were wrong.)

Finally, just when they had given themselves up to starvation once they had scraped the dregs from the bottom of the freezer, they were contacted out of the blue.

A slot was free and they could have it. Deliveries would start the following Tuesday.

The box arrived that Friday.

Having carried out all the tests they could conceive, short of bringing in the bomb squad, the son took responsibility on himself, and opened it.

It was a government food package.

And it actually had a decent variety of food, in fairness.

But it was typical of the UK government, in the midst of the pandemic lockdown, that no effort had been made to identify who was intended to receive this parcel, who it was from, or indeed what it contained.



And, ultimately, rendered pointless by the efforts of people who had been led to believe that no help was coming.

What a shambles.

‘What did YOU did in the lockdown?’ (Pandemic Journal, May 9)

200506 flowers

Blossoming: Mrs Mike, being disabled, doesn’t have much of an opportunity to develop a new career – but she has been doing her best to make our garden look good. I don’t think she’s alone in this during the lockdown. Here’s a (rather poor) shot of the results of some of her efforts.

How many businesses – or indeed industries – are going to go bankrupt because of the coronavirus lockdown?

Quite a few, one suspects.

I know many owners/managers of hotels and pubs are in fear for their future because the longer the lockdown, the less likely they can afford their overheads.

I’m a big fan of comic books but the specialist shops are in trouble because there are no new comics coming out. You can read about what this means for that industry and efforts to minimise the damage here.

And of course we know about the usual big-business scroungers who have been trying to get the UK’s Tory government to give them a bung so they don’t have to spend any of the money they’ve been squirrelling away (in tax havens?) for the last few decades (rather than paying their taxes?) – Richard Branson springs to mind, after he got out his begging bowl for his airline Virgin Atlantic, after paying no tax for 14 years.

Forget all the rhetoric over the last 10 years of Tory rule – it is people like this man who are the real scroungers.

The point is that a lot of people may suddenly find themselves without the jobs they had when the lockdown started in the middle of March.

What are they doing about it?

The good news is that some of them are finding other things to do.

This Writer’s good buddy Jack has started a YouTube channel (called 12 for reasons best known to him) and is making inspirational video clips, which he is posting at the rate of one a day. He admits he’s on a learning curve but who knows – by the end of the lockdown he might have a bright new career ahead of him.

Here’s his first (published) clip:

As an online journalist/blogger, of course, my own career is doing quite all right, thank you very much. I had a slight dip in income last month – but that is the usual seasonal drop that I tend to get around Easter (it lasts until August) and it hasn’t been anything like as bad as it has been for the last two years.

I started the online journalism – and I dare say Jack started vlogging – because there was an opportunity to do something more interesting than the usual 9 to 5.

I remember some good advice that I was given many years ago, which I’ll paraphrase here: it was that very few people start out in life doing the job they really want to do; they get stop-gap jobs that pay the rent while they try to find something better for themselves.

The way to find something better is to work on it in your spare time – not all the time, mind (I’m sure all work and no play would make Jack’s vlog a dull experience in no time). But a couple of hours’ effort every day isn’t going to kill anyone.

And we all have a bit of extra time at the moment, right?

So what do you want to be?

The coronavirus lockdown could be the biggest opportunity you’ve ever had to make a difference in your life – and possibly the lives of the people around you (these things all have a knock-on effect, even if we don’t notice them).

Perhaps it’s time to dust off those old ideas you had, read through them again and see what you can do to put them into practise as the restrictions start to get lifted.

It’ll be better than waiting weeks on end for a Universal Credit payment (that will probably never arrive)!

Uncertainty and guilt (Pandemic Journal, May 5)

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Public Health Wales has reported that the number of coronavirus deaths in Wales has reached 997, with nine here in Powys.

But the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the number of deaths in Powys by April 17 alone was 35.

Public Health Wales was recording only hospital deaths, but the variance here is huge, as the ONS said 18 people had died there of Covid-19 – by that date more than two weeks ago.

The ONS reckons 16 died in care homes and one at home.

The figures are alarming as they mean we can’t trust the daily numbers we’re seeing from the national public health agency in Wales.

And it makes me concerned for my friends.

Despite the pandemic and the lockdown, I am still working – news-related websites like mine aren’t affected because we still have access to the information we need and we still have the means of production that get our service out to users.

So I don’t have much time to check up on friends and family. This was brought home to me a few days ago when one of my oldest remaining friends – who I haven’t seen for the best part of 20 years – contacted me and said he had spent two weeks in bed with Covid-19.

He’s a teacher in Oxfordshire and had been working, looking after children of key workers.

He told me: “Had mild symptoms. My son too. My office manager too. ”

Was he not getting regular tests, then? “I know many people who work at John Radcliffe hospital and they and their kids get tests. Teachers not.”

Fortunately, his earthy sense of humour survived the experience: “It gave me the flu and the shits. No sense of smell still. Although… I farted earlier and smelt it.

“It was like a major moment. Who needs a test when you can smell your own farts again?

“Last Thursday at 8pm my entire street clapped for my farts.

“Special community moment.

“You appreciate small things. I have never been happier to smell my own wind again.”

He said several of the key worker children at his school had Covid, “and they want to reopen schools soon”. So I think we can work out his feelings on that topic!

But when did the opinions of people at the sharp end matter?

“Seriously,” he stated, “how do you socially distance primary kids? They carry and spread it rather than get ill. All my staff are worred and want PPE.”

Good luck with that, I thought.

Later in the conversation he said, “Well, if corona teaches us one thing… When this is over we should meet up before one of us dies.”

He’s right and I intend to.

But the comment flared up a bit of guilt. One of my oldest friends died a few years ago, when I had been unable to get away and see him and I have to admit a nagging sense of guilt about that.

Now, thousands of people are dying, locked away from their friends and loved ones, and I think my guilt may soon be in very good company.

Who was it who said everybody is tied to everyone else by guilt? Oh yes – Douglas Adams.

(Well, actually he said we were all tied to our places of birth by it but I think my version is more accurate in this instance so I’ll paraphrase.)

He wrote: “Most of the things which stir the Universe up in anyway are caused by dispossessed people. There are two ways of accounting for this. One is to say that if everyone just sat at home, nothing would ever happen. This is very simple.

“The other is to say — as Oolon Colluphid has at great length in his book “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Guilt, But Were Too Ashamed To Ask” — that every being in the Universe is tied to [everyone else] by tiny invisible force tendrils composed of little quantum packets of guilt. If you travel far from your [buddies], these tendrils get stretched and distorted.

“This compares with an ancient Acturan proverb. However fast the body travels, the soul travels at the speed of an Acturan Megacamel. This would mean, in these days of hyperspace and Improbability Drive that most people’s souls are wandering unprotected in deep space in a state of some confusion, and this would account for a lot of things.

“Similarly, if your [friends are] destroyed then these tendrils are severed and flap about at random… And these flapping tendrils of guilt can seriously disturb the space-time continuum.”

I think there will be a lot of guilt sloshing around the world after the Covid-19 pandemic eases off.

It would be encouraging to think that it could be used to achieve something useful – for example a consensus opinion that we all need an up-to-date, well-equipped, publicly-funded health system that puts people ahead of profit at all times – to ensure that the stupidity that has already cost so many lives in the United Kingdom alone can never happen again.

And that’s just for a start.