In church this morning, looking around at the frail and elderly in the congregation, who inevitably make up the majority, I wondered how many would survive the coronavirus epidemic soon to be upon us. Sadly, refraining from dipping their wafer in the communion wine (as advised by the Church of England) is unlikely to save them. Naturally, one wonders whether more vigorous action might do – or whether more vigorous action taken sooner might have done so.
We’ve known for weeks that the main source of new cases of coronavirus in Britain is people returning from Northern Italy. And yet there are no restrictions on incoming or outgoing flights, no checks, no leaflets giving guidance, and, according to people most recently returned, not even a hand sanitiser in sight. Now sixteen million people in Northern Italy are quarantined, in lockdown, and still the flights continue, the infected passengers returning.
The government have advised people returning with symptoms to self-isolate. But with an incubation period of up to 24 days (according to the Chinese), travellers returning from northern Italy could spread the virus unbeknown for weeks before they self-isolate – that is, assuming they are able or willing to self-isolate. It has also been clear for some time, merely from observing the rate of increase of new cases (mathematicians describe such functions as ‘exponential’) that any hope of containment is fast receding, that an epidemic is upon us.
It is equally obvious that in the event of an epidemic, the NHS will not be able to cope – i.e. provide the necessary care or beds for hundreds of thousands of new patients, most of whom will be either elderly, or suffering from other conditions, or both. They will be left at home to fend for themselves.
What’s going on?
It seems to me that behind the blather about handwashing and not panicking, our small numbers of cases compared to Italy, our world-beating NHS, a simple calculation has been made. It is well known that the coronavirus is much more contagious than seasonal flu (partly because there is no vaccine and no immunity from previous epidemics) and has a mortality rate (estimated around 2 per cent) some thirty times as great – and therefore that an epidemic could kill anything up to a million people; but is it also known that the elderly are disproportionately affected.
The record of the NHS in caring for the elderly, let alone according then dignity and respect, is abysmal. Health care is already rationed according to age. So, given there are no resources to spare, and given that the costs to business, and profits, of imposing travel restrictions are potentially immense, not to mention the costs to government of quarantining large numbers of people, why change the approach?
On balance, and by weighing up the costs and benefits, it makes perfect sense to adopt a softly-softly approach with plenty of reassuring noises – all made in the comforting knowledge that if an epidemic does occur, which is very likely, it is the frail and elderly who will take the hit, with minimal economic damage.
In short, it is business as usual for global Britain.