“How the Pandemic Ruined Britain’s Health and Wealth.

I have started reading Blinded by Corona by John Ashton, it should be read by every person having a vote in the next General Election so that they can make an informed choice about who they wish to govern them, I do not believe they will wish to choose either the Tories under Boris Johnston or the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon, both have failed us miserably, according to John Ashton. 

The Black Death or bubonic plague are well documented, the epidemic spread quickly from overcrowded parish to overcrowded parish. The wealthy fled to country properties taking the infection with them to smaller towns and rural areas, Eyam, in Derbyshire amongst them where 80% of the villagers died.  When the plague was diagnosed in a household, the inhabitants were sealed in, they either died or got better, quarantined. People walked down the middle of the road to stay away from houses, social distancing. They were told to scrub themselves and their clothing in carbolic disinfectant and paint the internal walls of their homes with lime wash, an antiseptic. We knew all this and had known it for a century or more. Yet when COVID-19 arrived in Europe, it seems we had learned nothing.

An epidemic was long predicted, and long overdue.  There was even a week-long exercise involving all the emergency services to see how they would cope if an epidemic, such as the Spanish Flu, were to occur again in this country again. The conclusion of the exercise was that the NHS would fail, and thousands would die. A little over a decade later that prediction became a reality COVID-19 arrived in the UK.

It was not as if we did not have adequate warning of how devastating this virus could be we had months as it spread west, first Asia, Eastern Europe, and Central Europe, finally to our shores. Still, the government dithered. We saw the first cases in York, none in Scotland at that point, but still we did not have any contingency in place and we kept our borders wide open.

As the need for hospital beds increased, the bed blockers (the elderly) were moved out and into care homes, no matter that they tested positive to COVID-19, with the inevitable consequences. Whilst other countries were isolating people that tested positive in specially set up centres, we sent them home to self-isolate, to in fact spread the virus amongst their family and friends, well; we are British and have civil rights. These are the sort of legal arguments that should have come in the wake of the report written at the end of the exercise that said that the NHS would collapse under an epidemic scenario.   

Even when social distancing was a legal obligation, I saw crowded streets in St Andrews, people shoulder to shoulder, no face masks, they were still only obligatory if going into shops, although staffs in shops, at first, were exempt. The whole thing was so poorly managed you had to ask yourself, “Is anyone in charge here?”

John starts us off with a history lesson, the word plagues has provenance dating back to the book of Exodus in the Old Testament of the bible. It was applied to catastrophic events including a population being overwhelmed by frogs, lice, boils and locusts to force the Pharaoh into allowing the Israelites to escape from slavery.

Leviticus, in the Old Testament, was the great book of the law. One of those laws was that you were not allowed to eat the meat of fallen stock that is an animal that has died from “Natural” causes. However, there was nothing stopping them from selling that meat in the next village. Yet here we are thousands of years on (and much the wiser) recycling meet of animals into animal feedstuffs, the cause of BSE in the UK in and around 1986.

In May 1997 along came, Hong Kong Bird flu, by December of that year the cross-species infection from fowl to human was confirmed with over 30 cases and four deaths. The Medical Officer of Health for Hong Kong, Margaret Chan, took the decision to have the entire Hong Kong poultry flock of over one million birds slaughtered. This prompt action ended the emergency but was an indication of what was coming over the next few years. The next respiratory virus with the apparent potential to cause a pandemic was SAR-CoV-19 in 2002; the outbreak caused 800 deaths from 8,000 cases in 37 countries until it petered out in July 2003.

When Ebola emerged in April 2014 in West Africa, a highly contagious virus with a mortality rate of at least 50% there was little interest in researching the virus or exploring the possibilities of developing a vaccine when financial returns to pharmaceutical companies would be so unlikely.  Likewise, with HIV/AIDS, it was only when infections began to occur among people from the developed countries that the rest of the world paid attention and even here it was slow off the mark.

John puts much of this “Slow to act” down to the overreaction of WHO to Swine flu in 2009. And the millennium bug, where millions were spent in prevention, that turned out not to be necessary. A waste of taxpayer’s money they cried.

New York September 11, 2001, changed all that. The fear of what our fellow humans might do raised public health as a key security objective. Up until this time the planning in the UK for such threats had been predominantly the province of the military and special intelligent agencies together with the police.

In the UK England abolished the Health Education Authority and replaced it with Health Protection Agency. This brought together the Public Health Laboratory Service and the national and regional laboratories along with the top-secret biological and chemical weapons laboratories in Porton Down. This was to prove critical in the 2018 Novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury.

All Tracy Daskiewicz, the Wiltshire Director of Public health, knew was that two people collapsed on a bench for no apparent reason. She immediately understood the public health implications of the unspecified risk and set about contact tracing anyone near the couple, despite the incredulity of the police, and to establish a web of containment. This soon included sealing off Salisbury (Against strong business opposition) until the nature of the pathogen was established. After Novichok was identified at Porton down, it became clear that her prompt decisions on the ground had saved hundreds from death and disability. He goes on to tell how many changes were made in the UK, but like most things when the danger has passed, their maintenance falls by the wayside. John goes on to show how Public Health England came under attack by the Health Select Committee as being not fish not fowl, too close to the government to offer a critical voice nor close enough to be influential.

The downside rapidly became apparent. The local government has changed a great deal since 1974. Councils have become management offices. Many of the historic functions relevant to public health has been removed, long since privatised, or transformed into arm’s length organisations: municipal housing, water and sewerage, street cleansing, police constabularies, fire and rescue, recreation facilities and local schools, among others.  

Even though the 139 public-health directors had by 2020 side-lined, and the regional level diminished, in theory, they could still be activated in a crisis. Public Health England could instruct them to join the front-line as Public Health England had done in Salisbury in 2018. It has provided the Wiltshire public-health team with the authority, and access to data, it needed to deal well with the disaster. Likewise, with the national purview, Public Health England could have provided cabinet ministers with detailed steers on the areas bearing the brunt of a pandemic from local data gathered by its directors if there had been adequate testing capacity.   

However, in the case of COVID-19 which threatened the whole of the UK Public Health England acted very differently from when it was dealing with the isolated Skripal-Novichok spy crisis in Salisbury. Public Health England withheld the early information it received on the virus from its own local directors. Furthermore, it even refused to release all available data on the virus, including test results, if a local director specifically asked for it. In what must be one of the egregious scandals of public health, this stone-walling of its own staff on the ground continued for the duration of the lockdown.  

What Public Health England did do was instruct its staff under no circumstances to talk to the media without authorisation from Public Health England.

If Novichok had been handled like COVID-19, people might still be dying from the toxin and parts of the Salisbury economy might still unnecessarily be in lockdown.

This is just a flavour of the book, a must-read, “How the pandemic ruined Britain’s health and wealth.

Off on my run now, stay safe.  

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