IT SHOULD not have had to come to this. Individual freedom is one of the fruits of peace. I remember Tony Benn warning that the Privy Council could meet and abolish our civil rights in an afternoon, which is pretty much what has happened now. When the enemy is at the gate the rules change, temporarily, and so far the people have accepted the curfew. However, the authorities must remember that it all depends on goodwill; inspecting our shopping, spying on us with drones and setting up phone lines for snitches risks poisoning the soil in which live-and-let-live liberty flourishes.
It could have been avoided. It is claimed that US intelligence saw unusual signs in Wuhan as far back as November, though this is disputed. Whatever the truth of that, in December Taiwan was warning the World Health Organisation, whose cosy relations with the Chinese led them to help suppress the information. Even that wasn’t our last chance: when the pandemic in China was clear to all, the West had its cue to act.
Some of the steps needed would have been obvious. For example, Bill Gates warned about air travel as a disease vector in his 2015 TED talk, so what did we do about incoming flights when reality hit?
What did we did about contact tracing and testing when the first cases began to appear here? It need not have required six-figure testing targets at that early stage.
The theoretical viral wargaming of recent years should have stimulated authorities to make contingency plans. Event 201 at America’s Johns Hopkins University in October 2019 and the UK’s Exercise Cygnus three years earlier than that highlighted the challenges. Cygnus, a simulation to estimate the impact of a hypothetical influenza pandemic, showed that it would cause the country’s health system to collapse from a lack of resources, with Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer at the time, saying that a lack of ventilators and the logistics of disposal of bodies were serious problems. As of March 2020, the full results of the exercise remain classified.
So where were the orders to expand ICU capacity, store up pharmaceuticals, stockpile PPE equipment? (As to that last, a proposal for reserves of protective eyewear was turned down three years ago. Oh, the money they saved us!)
Advocates of direct democracy should look at social media and shudder – wasn’t Brexit enough of a lesson in fierce divisiveness? – but if our MPs justify their powers by reference to Edmund Burke’s argument about exercising judgement on our behalf, they have failed the test. Rather than have plans and resources ready for foreseeable eventualities, many of them have ridden their personal hobby-horses around the Debating Chamber, and when the Grand National came they all fell at the first fence rather than protect our liberty. The best protection would have been the wise preparations that collectively they failed to make as Government or insist on as Opposition. The Executive commanded, the neddies nodded and went home in their horse-boxes.
Now we are paying the cost, and the big bills have still to come.