The Covid-19 The Virus That Outsmarted Us

While a virus makes a tactical assault on the individual it is simultaneously launching a broader, strategic attack on society, exploiting any vulnerabilities it discovers. This is how Covid-19 outsmarted Britain.

A Communications Breakdown

The wheels came off the British government’s communications machine at the first mention of ‘herd immunity.' The perception was politicians were prepared to let Covid-19 infect up to 60% of the population; a story which proved as hard to control as the virus itself. There followed an outcry from epidemiologists in the UK and other European countries, a warning from the World Health Organisation and a hastily prepared scientific paper published by Imperial College. Government scientists tried convincing a panicked public this wasn't BSE all over again, but the damage had been done. The word 'herd' itself was problematic in this context, referring to the British public as so much cattle would make all that followed more difficult.

There were numerous reasons why we were caught off guard when Covid-19 finally revealed itself. We had an under resourced National Health Service, a Prime Minister distracted, an absence of social cohesion and then, once the epidemic began, poor communication on the part government scientists. All conspired to give the virus a clear run at our healthcare system.

Under The Radar

Covid-19 is an exceptionally clever virus which has evolved to exploit vulnerabilities in 21st century public health systems. It arrived in Britain, unannounced, probably at some point in early January and then spread, much like influenza does, within schools and amongst other groups of young people. It initially presented itself as little more than a very mild cold and, in some cases, was asymptomatic. The young were not Covid-19’s primary target, they merely allowed it to transmit in stealth mode until it happened upon a more rewarding host: someone with and existing medical condition. At this point we helped the virus on its way by transporting the infected person, who unlike previous victims was expelling large amounts of infected material from their lungs, to a hospital.

It helps to consider Britain under attack not as a herd of 60 million individuals but as one biological entity and the transport of the first Covid-19 patient to a hospital seen as the initial assault on the country’s immune system (the NHS). This immune system had no natural resistance to the virus, which attaches itself to cells in the body (for cells read physicians and nurses.) A vaccine is required to protect these cells – in our meta-man model this vaccine is personal protection equipment (PPE) and testing. These, like the proposed Covid-19 vaccine, were not available when the virus first attacked. So now Covid-19 is exactly where it planned to end up, in a hotspot containing large numbers of elderly patients with pre-existing lung conditions all exhaling large enough volumes of inoculant sufficient to kill even the youngest and fittest health worker.

This ‘meta-model’ analogy may sound simplistic, but it lays at the heart of any working Covid-19 transmission model.

An Early Warning Ignored

When crowds of young people, suffering little more than sore throat and cough, began clogging the corridors of hospitals in Wuhan, transporting the virus into the Chinese health system, the modus operandi of the virus became clear. Despite this demonstration of the destructive power of Covid-19 little action was taken to prepare for a similar attack here in Britain. There was no testing to determine if the virus was already present in the UK population or attempt to ready the NHS for the imminent public health crisis.

The NHS - For Love Or Money

NHS employees are the only people in Britain who receive a round of applause simply for turning up for work. They are god like creatures whose rewards are not here on earth but in the form of likes, retweets and followers in the virtual world of social media. For socialists the NHS is the closest they have to a religion. The Labour party are wedded to it, which makes the healthcare provider a prime target for the Conservative Party who would like to privatise it. Selling off the state-controlled NHS would both destroy the Labour Party’s defining achievement and reduce the power base of one of the country’s most powerful trade unions. For those of us who born after 1948 the NHS has been responsible for eliminating the risk of dying during birth and ensuring we were still alive at the age of five. It has removed our burst appendixes, repaired us after fights, motorbike accidents and car crashes, removed potentially fatal growths from our bowels and put new valves to our hearts. The nurses do a wonderful job; I thought so and even married one. But seen from the other side of the bed the NHS has a less impressive record.

At the age of nineteen, my wife, then still a student nurse, was working twelve-hour nights as the sole person in charge of a ward. She injured her back lifting a patient back into bed, received numerous electric shocks from defective equipment and infections from patients. All this while earning less than I received as undergraduate. Complaining about working conditions was pointless as hospitals were exempt from health and safety legislation. Nursing, she was told, was not a job but a calling, you did not work for the NHS, you served in it. This is much as it is today with attitudes to the NHS in general, and health workers in particular, bordering on the schizophrenic.

Few would disagree that healthcare free at the point of delivery is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, the value a person places on this care is what they pay for it, nothing. Healthcare in Britain is regarded, like the fresh air and clean water, as one of the commons; an unlimited resource which is everyone’s by right. Hardly surprising then, that when celebrating that last weekend of freedom before the lockdown, driving to the coast in their polluting 4X4s and leaving empty beer cans floating in the sea, people paid little heed to the damage they were inflicting on the NHS. These same people now cheer doctors and nurses setting off on a crusade from which some will not return. As someone in Germany pointed out when Boris Johnson was stood applauding in Downing Street ‘Here we don’t clap for our health service, we just fund it.’

During the 1990s the NHS, like most other health providers in the developed world, was radically overhauled to cope with a growing number of elderly patients with end of life health issues and suffering from age related diseases. A similar re-engineering to cope with the threat of a pandemic, which has increased due to globalisation, is now required; in 2016 it was suggested this was long overdue. However, in the UK, this warning fell on the deaf ears of politicians with other things on their minds.

A Government That Took Its Eye Off The Ball

While China’s healthcare system was on the point of collapse Britain’s government advisers were still producing reports on the impact Brexit, and the resulting loss of EU research funding, would have on the NHS. These reports concluded public health would thrive in an independent Britain: this based on non-existent data and political dogma. Once it was clear Britain was on the threshold of a Covid-19 epidemic Brexit should have been temporary put back in its box. Instead suspicion now hangs over the government that current trade negotiations with the EU influenced plans for dealing with an imminent existential threat. Was it decided not release stockpiles of food held in reserve for a no deal Brexit when panic buying started because this would reduce the UK’s bargaining power during EU trade negotiations? Did the government turn down the offer to join an a Europe wide medical procurement consortium because it would demonstrate a dependence on the EU? This suspicion and lack of trust in the government will persist long after Covid-19 is beaten, especially if patients die while companies seen to have been rewarded for supporting Brexit with contracts to build ventilators, fail to deliver the equipment. But the vulnerability which the Covid-19 has most successfully exploited is Britain’s lack of social cohesion.

A Panicking Herd

The ‘Herd Immunity’ strategy, which would have seen the NHS destroyed and Britain’s economy unable to breath without the aid of a ventilator, was not created in a vacuum. As its name suggests the strategy reflects the government’s view that Britain’s citizens are a mass of individuals devoid of by anything resembling a society. It assumes all that binds us are transient relationships within online social media networks. We have become herds which those who helped bring Boris Johnson to power have proved adept at corralling into cattle pens. The erosion of a real-world sense of community has played a part in the growing ambivalence towards those charged with maintaining our health. It also has left us receptive only to messages that relate to ourselves – telling people their panic buying results in others going without merely causes shoppers to hoard for fear of joining the unlucky ones who have ended up staring at empty shelves.

As members of a herd we are easily influenced. Like America’s Trump, Johnson knows a lie, if repeated often enough, in the virtual world of politics can create a truth in the real world. There is a precedent for this; that staged photograph of the milkman on his rounds climbing over piles of rubble during the blitz. The image was used as part of the ‘Britain Can Take It’ campaign which persuaded Germany that bombing Britain’s cities had no significant impact on their occupant’s moral. Unfortunately, while Hermann Goering was easily dissuaded, viruses do not give up because someone writes ‘Let’s Get Covid-19 Done’ on the side of a bus. In fact, in Boris Johnson Covid-19 discovered someone so naive it had little trouble infecting both him and his close associates.

A Political Disease

We have yet to experience the fallout from government’s final mistake, it is assumed there will not be others. Exploiting social media’s worship of the NHS, the government put out a call for an army of healthcare helpers. It desperately needed a large number in the same sentence as ‘NHS’ to distract from the 1000s of missing ventilators, tens of 1000s of face masks still to be delivered and millions of testing kits that do not exist. The most logical place for an army of volunteers would have been the charity sector which already carries out tasks such as transporting discharged patients and supporting the elderly and isolated. But charities constantly pester the government to spend more on social care and it was reluctant to become the recruiting sergeant for organisations that support policies championed by the Labour Party. Better to have a modern-day Dad’s Army that can quickly be demobbed once the war against Covid-19 is over.

Without the merest hint of irony Johnson cynically announced there is, after all, such a thing as society. He then left the NHS, already struggling with logistics, to sift through 750,000 applications from volunteers: separating out over enthusiastic Corporal Joneses from caring and compassionate Private Godfreys. More importantly weeding out a smattering of Private Walkers, the spivs who no doubt regard Johnson’s NHS army as open season on the vulnerable and elderly. So, that immune system we are all locked down to protect, receives another blow from the point scoring politician who, a month ago, was waving a mucus drenched flag under our noses.

Ultimately the government will fall between two horses, let down by scientific advisors and media gurus who, early on, underestimated the threat posed by Covid-19. Britain will recover and out of this crisis will emerge something more closely resembling a functioning society - and a more robust NHS. There may even be an improvement in the nations diet, after all Covid-19 is riding piggy back on an epidemic of obesity. Already individuals and organisations are pooling resources to fill the void created by weeks of government indecision, rising to the challenge in spite of, rather than led by, the government.

By the end of next year we will have a vaccine which will protect from future attacks by Covid-19. In the meantime, we have to stay smart - and get lucky.