Lockdown for COVID-19 has led to me consuming lots of food for thought on the issue. I suspect there could have been more guidance taken from veterinary experience in handling UK animal disease outbreaks, such as tuberculosis (TB) and foot and mouth disease (FMD). There are also strong parallels in the political management of these diseases, with their differing levels of infectivity, and the current situation with coronavirus.
The handling of the first FMD outbreak in 2001 under the Blair Government was chaotic, extremely harsh, and possibly with limited scientific or legal basis. Draconian legislation subsequently followed to regularise this approach, which was repeated when a further outbreak occurred in 2007. It contrasted with how most developed countries dealt with FMD, where a policy of ring vaccination can be accepted. That is now the adopted policy in the UK since 2011. British exceptionalism apparently makes Westminster a slow learner.
Bovine TB persists, and understanding of where it comes from and how it is transmitted seems vague. Scotland is officially TB-free whereas England is only aiming to achieve that status by 2038. I don't know what policy or significant environmental differences there were that brought this about, but badgers are believed to act as carriers, and culling badgers has been a highly controversial aspect of the policy in England. Some believe badger culling is counterproductive, while others think it is effective but has not been carried out rigorously enough. The end result is a typically British muddle.
Effective lockdown measures for COVID-19 were undoubtedly brought in too slowly in the UK. Subsequent action by governments suggest a tacit acknowledgement that they were woefully unprepared. The organisational structure for test, trace and isolate simply wasn't there, and, along with PPE, nor were the necessary laboratory materials. The political and administrative response appears to have been one of blind panic, with some predictions of up to 500,000 UK deaths leading to a reckless decanting of elderly NHS patients to care homes, and outright denial of the urgent need to develop testing capacity.
Earlier management failure in a crisis is often packaged as 'we are where we are', but good managers promptly identify mistakes, acknowledge and learn from them, and take steps to ensure they are not repeated. Bad managers obsfucate, withhold facts, and seek scapegoats. As a lay observer seeking to outline a way forward amidst a feast of speculation and spin, I posit the following:
Ring fence care home residents by ensuring all who come in contact with them are very regularly tested. This includes opening up access arrangements for close family and friends. Poorly performing care homes should have extremely detailed regulatory inspection, and all should have Government support as considered necessary.
Central diktat by Government may not have served the NHS well. Despite the absence of any direct local democratic input, there should be more focus on decentralising and devolving internal decision making, and using diversity of experience to inform policy. In a word, practice subsidiarity.
Many communities appear to have been outstanding in supporting their self-isolating and vulnerable residents, and Government resources now need to be applied to help cement this in place. Here is a huge opportunity to facilitate self-organised grass-root health and wellbeing provision for the future.
With Government having taken effective action to protect the vulnerable, as set out above, let our economy be free to function, and leave the general populace to make their own decisions subject to a simple set of rules. Reduce social distancing to one, or one-and-a-half metres at most, and make face masks mandatory in some situations, along with widespread provision of hand sanitisation stations. Also, confirm that wilful breach of simple and clearly defined COVID-19 control requirements is a criminal offence.
Much of this may be in process already, but I sense a lack of clarity. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon needs to have confidence in her Government's effective policy delivery, and perhaps trust the public's own judgement more. At Westminster, almost the opposite is the case, where too much unwarranted political self-belief is producing erratic and contradictory policy decisions. Regardless of the rhetoric, it will be the economic impact of their crisis management that determines the futures of our current political leaders.
Does anyone read Damon Runyon anymore? Older readers will remember it was the sage of Broadway who wrote: 'The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's how the smart money bets'. What he would have made of the coronavirus pandemic is anyone's guess. Then there is his warning, directed mainly at the younger generation, on how to respond when a complete stranger, approaches you with a brand-new set of playing cards, on which the seal is unbroken, and announces he can make 'the jack of spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear'. Runyon's advice was unequivocal: 'Son,' he wrote, 'do not bet him, for as sure as you do you are going to get an earful of cider'. This story always reminds me of a time long ago, in a galaxy far away, when snooker was new to television and the only shows available to fans of the potting game were Pot Black
on the BBC, and The Big Break
on STV, each of them a by-product of the colour revolution.
Among the outstanding practitioners available then were Fred Davis, Ray Reardon, John Spencer, Alex Higgins, Cliff Thorburn and Dennis Taylor, the new kid on the block. Future stars, such as Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry, were a distant promise.
The first day of recording, a group of us gathered in Studio C at Cowcaddens to admire the splendid new table provided by Riley-Burwat. Our commentator was John Pullman, eight times world champion, and the dominant force in UK snooker throughout the 1960s, making his first major appearance as a TV commentator. He must have thought us a cocky bunch when the director challenged him to a single-frame contest, no handicap wanted. Pullman, a genial giant of a man as it happens, opted to play left-handed, one-handed, with his arm behind his back. Result: green baize annihilation for my friend, who failed to score a single point, delivered by a master.
The various bits and pieces Pullman brought to the studio included a strange bottle-shaped object in which he carried 22 snooker balls, each 2.07 inches in diameter, and each weighing exactly the same; a full match set, in other words. These he proceeded to scatter across the splendid new table, together with the bottle-shaped container. Next, he produced a cue and took aim at a red ball which struck the neck of the container and rebounded into a pocket. Much the same thing happened with another red, selected at random.
It took a moment before everyone watching realised what was happening. A colleague, who fancied the odds, was about to bring serious money to the proceedings when the impossible happened. From a distance of about two or three feet, a red ball passed through the narrow neck and into the container. 'Please, John, tell me,' I pleaded. 'Can you miss?' 'I try not to,' Pullman smiled. 'Watch!'
First, he despatched the pink from about the same distance as the original red. This was followed, soon after, by the black. Two colours, two shots, too amazing, surely, as a performance, to be topped? Pullman clearly didn't think so. Cue ball in hand he turned to the watching group. 'Which colour do you want to come out first?' he inquired sweetly. Someone nominated black. Out it popped. Mr Runyon, you should have been with us at that hour!
The door, which had previously been the gateway to adventures, though limited in their nature, was now the gaol cell entrance, staying firmly closed as opposed to the previously wide open portal to his world, welcoming friends and visitors.
That world had changed though, freedom now had a new focus; from danger; from illness and even from a potentially terrifying death. In order to protect and preserve life, the meaning of that word in yesterday's terms, previously sacrosanct freedoms, some up to now regarded as the mainstay of democracy and moral order, had to be disregarded. This heralded the beginning of a 'new-way'. The door was now the effective boundary which was not to be breached in order to preserve life and hold the danger at bay. New way, new order, new normal – all phrases being used to describe the present and immediate future, but none really fully understood or fully defined by those using the terms as they struggle to comprehend, like him the full impact of 'the now'.
The problem as he saw it was when, and if, he would return to some form of normal life as he had experienced before. His life had been fairly simple and in the main straightforward, his tastes and interests were not out of the ordinary, getting back to that was not much of an ask, was it? After all it wasn't his fault, he had not done anything as he saw it to contribute to his present predicament, so why was he having to suffer in this grave manner?
His world had been turned upside down and the prevalent view was that the road back to the old freedoms was some way off, if it was ever to come at all.
As he awoke from his uneven and disturbed sleep, he breathed that huge sigh of relief you do, on realising it was all a dream. Then holding on to that comfort for a second, the full impact of understanding hit him...
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