Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Boris Johnson may not be the brightest bulb, but he is not stupid; more irresponsible than stupid as his private life testifies to and as his behaviour during the first days of coronavirus also displayed. He went on holiday early on and did not attend two of the Cobra meetings called to attend to the emergency. In short, he did not grasp the full urgency of the situation and that was part of the reason the UK only went into full lockdown a week after most other European countries.
Then there was the disgrace of British manufacturers shipping protective equipment overseas because their offers of help had been repeatedly ignored by the UK Government. And there is the further disgrace that what we brought in from overseas was not properly vetted at time of manufacture and much was unusable. Finally, there is the fact that Great Britain, with its sixth largest economy in the world, has even fallen behind America in testing for the virus. Britain is only (at time of writing) 45th in the league of countries in the percentage of tests carried out on its population.
Were he a more thinking man, Boris Johnson would have resigned already but, and here Nietzsche comes into play, were he a more thinking man, he would have carried out his duties much more effectively and he would have had no need to resign.
He will not, of course; although unsuited for the job, he will hang on to it. After all, it had long been his ambition and those who oppose him, as did Sajid Javid (a much more able individual), will be forced to resign. For some reason, Chris Hedges comes to mind because that great journalist once said: 'Those attracted to power tend to be venal mediocrities'. Not that this Government is entirely to blame for Britain's poor response to the pandemic. It is, in any event, a unique situation and, given the number of decisions that require to be made mistakes, inevitably, will be made – even were an extremely capable administration in place.
And mistakes were made long before this administration was in place.
In 2016, under then Prime Minister, David Cameron, Exercise Cygnus took place (largely in London) which tested the National Health Service's ability to cope with an outbreak of plague. It clearly demonstrated a complete lack of ability to handle such in terms of protective equipment, testing and in treating. No action was taken after this exercise. Well, it would have cost money to do so.
The previous Government (Tony Blair's – remember him?) were also culpable in that they presided over further deterioration of the NHS. Indeed, their approach was to encourage independent treatment centres (ITCs) to open up throughout England; these centres were run for profit. In the interim, NHS hospitals were encouraged to apply for foundation trust status – a move which ensured they operated more like private businesses.
But even before Blair, the NHS had been ailing; the diagnosis was simple: underfunding for years. When the Blair Government took over in 1997, funding for the NHS was around 5% of Gross Domestic Product – well below the rate of equivalent nations. In fairness, Blair took steps to raise that, however, not all those steps – as per above – proved neither fruitful nor desirable.
Further back, when the NHS started in 1948, there were (approximately) 400,000 hospital beds in the system; as against this, when coronavirus made its appearance, there were only 125,000. This is not as bad as it sounds as, since 1948, many conditions, thanks to advances in technology, can now be treated within a day which, in 1948, would have required a long hospital stay. Nevertheless, the true state of the NHS can be seen when comparing current available beds to like nations. The EU averages 6.2 hospital beds per 1,000 of the population and, a related figure, 3.9 doctors against the same. By contrast, the UK had only 2.8 hospital beds (when the coronavirus outbreak began) and, coincidentally, 2.8 doctors per 1,000 of population. We need more of both – especially the doctors. And what is true of doctors is likely valid for other medical professionals and carers as well.
This brings in the subject of jobs. There have been considerable concerns raised about what will happen to the economy after coronavirus has finished its rampage. Businesses everywhere have lobbied for government funding and the case for such relates to the potential damage to the economy and the feared loss of jobs. Or, at least, the loss of jobs is being made the excuse for the approach by the Government whereas, perhaps more realistically, it is the loss of earnings to the businesses concerned that worries them. The truth is that the economy is more like a large piece of rubber: when part is pressed down, another part expands. True, it is to all our advantages if some businesses are helped through these times but:
Jobs are not a function of business,
Jobs are a function of the work needed to be done.
And after the rampage of the virus there will be a lot of work needed. Our general poor response to the virus highlights the work necessary to update and improve the NHS. However, we not only need more medical professionals – the UK's crumbling infra-structure requires attending to and our Victorian housing is outdated and much in need of an overhaul.
More importantly, we have to return to and encourage manufacturing on a larger scale within this nation whilst still supporting our service industries. That will totally distort the current economy which has developed based on cheap, imported, manufactured goods; but it will also strike at the heart of the biggest concern facing humankind – global warming. Every shipload of chattels brought to these shores adds to environmental pollution; not only because the transport itself puffs out hundreds of tonnes of greenhouse gases but the fact that the manufacturing countries do not have as high standards of emission control as the UK has.
This will completely set the economy on a new course and those with vested interests in how things are will resist such changes. Linked to this is the fact that, in order to combat climate change, we will all have to accept restrictions. That is, we will all have to accept limitations on our travel and our consumption. That is what makes such dramatic changes hard to implement. What should be done as to what is required and what can be done are always different entities bearing in mind that 'should' is an emotive term.
We have travelled quite a distance though from the present Government's immediate handling of the pandemic crisis, through the economy, to climate change and the sacrifices we may have to make to counter same. However, if we are to continue as a species, we will have to accept gross changes. It has been predicted that, by 2070, large parts of our globe will have become uninhabitable due to vastly increased temperatures (and that there will be other and perhaps even more vicious pandemics). So it is essential we make deep changes. In other words, to survive we must do better than the gods when we contend.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow