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Stop talking the talk and walk the walk


ACROSS Europe and North America people are becoming ill and dying because of inertia in government.

How many times in recent weeks have you read a story in which the Prime Minister or some senior cabinet minister had promised that something would be done ‘in the coming days’? ‘A meeting will be held on Wednesday’ to consider how to deal with some issue. ‘We have ordered hundreds’ of some necessary kit for hospitals. Bread today, jam tomorrow.

Compare the action, or rather inaction, of government with our firefighters. When the alarm sounds, they drop what they are doing, don their protective gear and dash for their vehicles. They don’t pause for a committee meeting on how to proceed. They know what to do and do it. They act – and God bless them.

How many times in the past few days have you seen reports of people ignoring advice to practise social distancing and a warning that if they fail to behave with care for others, the government might have to take firm action? Note the word ‘might’. How does that nudge or push the selfish into obeying the rules? Does anyone seriously think a £30 fine is even going to raise an eyebrow? By contrast, in Taiwan a man has been fined the equivalent of £27,000 for breaking his quarantine by going clubbing. The threat of a fine of that size would do much to ensure folk obey the rules.

Taiwan is one of the few bright spots amidst the gloom of coronavirus. It was able to use the lessons it learned during the SARS outbreak in 2003, when 73 died. Taipei has implemented 124 safety protocols, a testament to its quick, comprehensive and well-considered policy measures.

Quick off the mark, the very day Chinese officials notified the World Health Organisation that China had several cases of pneumonia, the Taiwan Centres for Disease Control began monitoring passengers arriving in the country from Wuhan, even before they had left their planes. 

Yet here we still have reports of spotty or ineffectual monitoring at airports. There seems to be little in the way of serious checking. A neighbour who has just returned from a holiday in the sun said she had never got through arrivals so swiftly and easily. Staff, she said, seemed determined to get passengers out as quickly as possible. She was chuffed about that, of course, but it doesn’t say much about barring the door to the virus.

Why did no alarm bell ring here when the first news began seeping out from China? Surely our health officials should have recalled SARS and other virus scares? So why did our government and health officials not start preparing for a possible emergency as they did in Taiwan? They should have had an action plan. The militaries in big countries have detailed battle plans for various contingencies that they hope they never have to use. Why would our officials not have such plans for our health? When this is over, there are strong grounds for an inquiry into this massive failure of government which has led to crashing the economy and an unprecedented loss of liberty.

What we have witnessed from the British government is inertia where action was needed. It is all very well for the Prime Minister to make another of his ‘we’re-going-to-get-on-top-of-it’ speeches. He’s a believable talker but it’s one thing to talk the talk and another to walk the walk.

After weeks of complacency and ineffectual warnings, he has ordered a lockdown, which the police will use their discretion over enforcing; and action is promised that should have already been instigated, namely turning the ExCel Centre in London into a 4,000-bed hospital, and ordering 3.5million antibody tests to help determine who may be immune from the disease and safe to go back to work.

Meanwhile the crackdown on those who flout the social distancing guidelines seems doomed to fail. Several senior police officials have expressed reluctance to act on the measures, citing, not unreasonably the British ethos of policing by consent. Russia has just passed legislation to jail people who flout the rules. Is that yet to follow here?

In any case, is it all too late? If the virus bird has already flown, which according to the latest modelling study, it has.

Britain has been under pressure for weeks to increase the number of coronavirus tests it carries out, and we are miles behind some other nations in monitoring the spread of the virus. It now transpires that public health chiefs have never once hit their initial 10,000-a-day target.

Worst of all, nurses and doctors around the country reasonably complain they are unable to get tested, despite having coronavirus symptoms. It seems likely they are passing on the disease to patients and other NHS staff. Experts have warned that in the case of some hospital wards, up to one-third of medics are self-isolating at home, often because family or housemates have shown signs of the virus. If they could be tested, they could get back to work, say health analysts. 

Doctors are also warning they are going to have to quit for the safety of their families because they don’t have proper protective equipment. Which raises the next question: what sort of protection will there be for the 250,000-strong volunteer army Health Secretary Matt Hancock is touting?

Why is our Government always on the back foot? Why can’t it ever take the bull by the horns? Dithering technocrats and managers afraid to take truly tough decisions? Inertia?

God help us.

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Bob McMillan
Bob McMillan
Bob McMillan is a retired journalist and editor now living in Canada

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