Thursday 26th March 2020

Daily Diary: A Virus That Haunts Before it Strikes

It’s another beautiful spring day, although the wind has picked up a little. There are people out on the common walking in ones and twos and making an effort to socially distance themselves. The news channels are swamped with coronavirus as if they’ve all been dunked in a virological culture and got badly dosed up. There’s a hapless character from Birmingham who got himself arrested, having climbed Tryfan in Snowdonia, only to need rescuing on the way down. The publicity really stinks when outdoor pursuits gone wrong catch media attention. I’m glad we shut our sites, but my guess is that any flying would be sure to attract police attention and an on the spot fine. Events have moved on and are doing so at helter-skelter speed.

Last night Kath rang. She’s pretty much isolated in her flat up in Coventry. She had gone there to be near her son Paul and grand-daughter Summer. Now Paul and Summer are in lockdown. They are separated by the virus and he’s trying to work online. Kath talks of still visiting the shops and that worries Vicky and I. She’s 74, and although with a positive outlook on life to be admired, is not in the best of health, dealing as she does with both diabetes and asthma. There’s always that fear. I’ve already lost two followers on Twitter through coronavirus, each time following a comment about suffering from what are becoming increasingly familiar symptoms.

It seems that all too often the virus haunts before it strikes.

Back at home life is settling into a routine – get up, emails then Twitter, rowing machine, a coffee and something light for breakfast, catch up on some TV or LBC on the radio, diary time. Then have an afternoon cup of tea or coffee with Vicky and sort out stuff like food and other essentials, including plans to get out into the garden to do some weeding soon.

We plan to be out for the Big Clap at eight.

More of that tomorrow.

The Bigger Picture: We’re trying to fly the plane while we’re building it.

“We’re trying to fly the plane while we’re building it.”

So it is that Richard Hunt from the US department of health describes caring for patients seriously ill with Covid-19 in a training session.

Were there such a metric as the Ethelred Scale of Unreadiness and ten was the maximum I reckon we’d be on an eight.

In many western countries, including our own, it’s like the answer lies in a jigsaw puzzle where we’re receiving the pieces through the mail, one at a time. At this stage of the pandemic’s ever-changing history we know the following: First, as a respiratory virus there’s a good chance it can be stopped, or at least slowed down. Second, although older populations are disproportionately affected and are likely to experience the most severe symptoms, the virus does not exclusively single out the elderly. Third, death rates differ by location. Fourth, in a darkly parallel way to how, on a nano-level, coronavirus messes up the human immune response, so on a macro-level it sends a wrecking ball through the supply chains that keep the human world turning, including the logistics necessary for public health systems to deal with it. Fifth, coronavirus is tricksy, its transmission depending catching people out on every careless act and casual oversight.

But we don’t know some highly pivotal facts, like how many people are being infected, why some people have such a severe disease and others barely become ill, whether infection confers immunity, and how long that immunity is likely to last.

The unreadiness leads to thousands dying alone in Italy, unable to say farewell to loved ones. Some 7,500 people have died, now more than China. They are desperate. Desperate enough to accept a medical relief package from Moscow, earning itself the slogan “From Russia with Love,” and following follows a phone conversation on Saturday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. 600 ventilators, disinfectants, masks, protective equipment and testing kits. Supplies were transported in military planes. Military medics were among the team of specialists that landed at a military air base near Rome.

But whether it’s a genuine goodwill gesture, or the exercising of Russian PR and soft power when the EU has been so obviously slow to support is uneasily unclear. The Italian paper La Stampa reported that unnamed Italian officials had claimed that 80 per cent of the supplies sent over are useless and the story dies quickly.

The unreadiness leads to a struggling health system in Spain, where despite being locked down since 14th March, Spain, with more than 4,000 COVID-19 deaths, is still struggling to stop the spread of the disease.

It leaves New York’s hospitals under siege as they start to confront the sort of increases in coronavirus cases that have overwhelmed health care systems elsewhere. Already in America, with over eighty thousand cases and a thousand deaths so far, the pandemic is becoming politicised, so much so that a CDC veteran openly wonders how the CDC has come to be sitting on the sidelines in this fight against the coronavirus.

The US now has the most reported coronavirus cases with 81, 321, according to New York Times data. Over 1,000 deaths have been linked to the virus.

And people working for the NHS is feeling more insecure than ever after ten years of underinvestment. 17,000 NHS beds have been cut since 2010 while private hospitals get 30 per cent of their income from NHS patients on waiting lists. There are real fears about intensive care beds in particular. There is insufficient Covid-19 testing and a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) is presenting a real and present danger to those in the front line.

If it’s bad enough with the NHS the care sector feels even more abandoned, with much justification.

Adding to Britain’s unreadiness is the now-obsessive tunnel vision over leaving the EU. It has to be total. It has to be complete. It has to be Canada, or Australia, or anywhere that sounds half-decent, especially to those who don’t know what it means. After all, an Australia deal is no different from an Outer Mongolian deal, but we wouldn’t want one of those, would we now? So, in accordance with that emergent group-think is ‘Britain good, EU bad.’

Which in turn means that the Government wants as little as possible to do with the EU when it comes to all sorts of matters of mutual interest and co-operation, including public health. Boris Johnson has already decided to pull Britain out of the EU’s Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) after Brexit EU’s pandemic warning system, despite the Coronavirus outbreak and despite the fact that it was a well-established online platform to let health chiefs exchange rapid information about “serious cross-border threats to health”. Despite the fact that the NHS Confederation, which represents hospitals and NHS bodies, warned a month ago that quitting the EWRS could heighten the risk from a pandemic in February. Seemingly it was blocked because the Government didn’t want to be accused by ardent pro-Brexit faction, upon which it sees its power base lying, of seeking more than the basic Canada deal in trade talks.

Likewise, Britain has not joined an EU-wide scheme for buying life-saving ventilators even though they were invited.  Number 10 claimed the Government did not receive an email invitation in time. It was the thinnest of excuses, not credible to anyone. Lib-Dem MP Layla Moran crisply described this needless wooden-headedness when she accused the PM of putting “Brexit over breathing.”

The Government has muddied its initial response to the virus with political game-playing. It creates ambiguities, each one a loophole for the virus.

The need for focused leadership is already becoming clear with two new studies showing the aggressive social distancing measures taken by China at the outset of the Covid-19 epidemic significantly helped to curb the outbreak and lower the number of cases. But there is an anxiety elsewhere in a world that has moved away from authoritarian government, or where it hasn’t, cloaked it with populism and libertarianism. There is already amongst some a brooding resentment that this time the pandemic originated in China, adding to a refusal to acknowledge reality at face value that strict lockdowns work.

Propagandists for China are already claiming the pandemic will boost China’s standing in the world, and there is an uncomfortable feeling among all but the staunchest deniers they might, on this occasion be right.

The coronavirus could devastate poor countries. It is in the rich world’s self-interest to help. But many of the rich countries have been made too inward-looking by the pandemic to even see themselves in a position to do so. A China emerging early from the pandemic might well be able to, creating a new, wider hegemony. A loose parallel to America in 1945.

A western backlash is almost certain. A new fault line appearing between east and west in a world about to face a global challenge that will dwarf Covid-19, namely climate change.

It’s worrying.

In America the markets are volatile. The promise of a $2.2 trillion stimulus package gives the Standard and Poor S&P 500 its best three-day run since 1933. Investors look past 3.3 million American workers on to the dole in a week. They seemingly fail to notice the skew towards the phenomenal success of Tech companies such as Amazon and Zoom is highly localised in a wider faltering economy. They sleepwalk into the weird world of negative interest rates, which in essence means giving someone money and paying them for the privilege of holding it.

Covid-19 is bringing about economic unreadiness too.

Which in some way or other means a political unreadiness as well. The political implications could reverberate far longer than the health and economic ones.  All anyone has to do is look back over the last five years or so to see that. One thing’s for sure is that political activists will be looking for opportunities and in the world of social media who knows what volatility that will create. Big government is needed to fight the pandemic.

What matters is how it shrinks back again afterwards, or whether it even can.

And there are unexpected consequences. Some good, like Trump acting pragmatically to halt collection of student loan debt, a move affecting nine million student loan borrowers currently in default. Some perverse, like closures of nonessential businesses prompting a new abortion debate, a bizarre fusion of an obsession with privatised health, Roe versus Wade and what’s really meant by focusing on the most vulnerable. Some simply missed opportunities for necessary change, such as US airlines getting what they wanted in the coronavirus bailout bill, without environmental restrictions.

In Britain, Rishi Sunak takes the opportunity to announce almost all self-employed will receive 80% of their income. The support may not be available until early June, more than two months from now.

It’s well received.

Well enough for the new coronavirus police powers to be announced without controversy. The Home Office has published details of the new regulations which allow police to take people off the streets, ‘instruct’ people to go home from outdoor areas and can use ‘reasonable force’ to do so. Those who breach the lockdown rules face a fixed penalty of £60, which will be lowered to £30 if paid within 14 days. But repeat offenders face a maximum of £960 in fines. Anyone found guilty of ‘coronavirus coughing’ at emergency workers could be imprisoned for up to two years.

So far it has to be said that the police have been highly restrained.

While in Westminster there are the beginnings of a rift between MPs in Parliament and Number 10 and there’s a call from Tory MP, defence committee chairman Tobias Ellwood for Boris Johnson to take online questions from a group of select committee chairs twice a week while Parliament is shut.

It’s a while before he does this at all.

For most of us there is a continuing change to our lives – the New Reality.

People are increasingly using the video chat service Zoom to do business, contact health professionals and stay in touch with loved ones and friends. There are caveats about privacy, but overall it’s a great enabler and has been software that almost seems to have sprung out of nowhere. However, it does require new thinking. I personally find it fine for meetings but I still get spooked about using it socially with all but family and the closest of friends. There is even a telemedicine comparison site in the States. 

While the potential for videoconferencing is great in education. I remember remote-teaching twenty years ago, but it required a lot of setting up and in my case was used with a small A-level group in a minority subject where staffing had become an issue.

Things have changed but still have a long way to go.

In one case in Hong Kong, children are expected to be “dressed appropriately” and sit at a table, not a couch, when they log on to Google Classroom each morning. Her school has been using the free service to share assignments, monitor progress, and let students and teachers chat. They’re also doing interactive lessons via Google Hangouts Meet, a virtual-meeting software made free in the wake of the coronavirus. “I actually think she’s more focused with this approach,” a Polish mother living in Hong Kong says about her daughter. “She’s not distracted by other kids. Her class sizes are normally about 30, so I imagine a typical teacher spends a good portion of the time on behaviour management. Here the teacher can mute anyone!”

Hybrid learning, actually successful since the introduction of the Open University in the 1970s, is beginning to come into its own.

Stripping away the need for human contact has revealed its potential.

Perhaps it’s been that primal need for in-person communication that’s masked its potential for decades. Some of the countless stories are highly personal.

Like the Michelin-star chef who moves family into restaurant to cook for NHS staff full time. The British couple stuck in a motel amid New Zealand’s lockdown, needing vital medication, and fearing they won’t be able to get home. It turns out that New Zealand is among the best places in the world to be stuck during a pandemic, but at this point in time it’s an unknown and doesn’t diminish the experience. The loving couple so desperate to be together that they brought forward the big day, even if it meant a more modest celebration. The empty theatres – movie and live performance – forced to close, their staff furloughed by the thousands,

Labour MP Jess Phillips brings to light one of the darkest emerging stories. The paradox that isolating people brings some whose relationships are at risk of foundering dangerously close together and exposing the dangerously fragile sides to their personal psyches. Jess calls that hotels will be needed to house domestic violence victims during lockdown, providing sanctuary at a time these women and children most need it.

In 2016 Shelter and YouGov carried out a poll and found that 37% of households were on paycheque from destitution. A quarter would not be able to cover their housing costs at all if they lost their job. Even before the pandemic things had not moved on over the following years, with the political toing-and-froing of Brexit being a huge distraction away from the country’s deep structural problems (none of which were obviously solvable by leaving the EU). Renters in particular are fearful, and much of this huge demographic are renting from private landlords in an inadequately regulated sector compared with our neighbours such as Germany.  One story about ‘distraught’ supply teachers fearing for homes after being laid off by schools sums up the frightening personal reality.

“They’ve nothing to fall back on. They’re going to lose their homes.”

Even the more comfortably off at home are not safe in a world so interconnected by its laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Fake texts, scam calls and emails are on the rise. I’ve even had a few myself. One comes out warning people that they’re on a ‘final warning’ for breaking government rules and a fraudster was recently arrested after claiming his pills could prevent coronavirus. On an online marketplace, of course.

But it’s not all dark. Some genuinely want to bring light. Global Citizen creates a series called ‘Together at Home’ to support the World Health Organisation’s efforts. to bring us all together to feel less lonely by bringing major artists into our living room. In being entertained it’s also possible to feel that you are taking action to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

We all need feelgood at the moment.

There’s an upside too environmentally. As more people stay at home, demand for oil, including gasoline and jet fuel is plummeting. It might be a temporary illusion but people can see the possibility of ending our addiction to carbon-based fuels. It’s important psychologically.


  • A luxury hotel in Switzerland is offering a Covid-19 Service, that includes a $500 coronavirus test, a bid to earn revenue as global demand for hospitality services plummets.
  • Thousands of Olympians face not only the disappointment of not competing in Tokyo this year, but the worry that there’s a chance they may not qualify to participate as part of their national teams for the 2021 Games.
  • In a cruel irony, China still prevents Taiwan, a champion in the fight against Covid-19, being admitted into the World Health Organisation whose first priority is the pandemic.
  • All returning Canadians will have to enter a mandatory 14-day quarantine, regardless of whether they have the symptoms or not.
  • The first diagnosed case of Covid-19 has appeared in war-torn Libya.

Closer to home I receive three notices. The first is a stern one from energy provider British Gas:

“So for now, we can only help with prepay issues or emergencies (e.g. no heating or hot water). Please don’t contact us about anything else.”

The second is from the trades site Rated People:

“Tradespeople can carry out work in people’s homes as long as the tradesperson is well and has no symptoms, and can stand two metres apart from anyone else in the house. They shouldn’t carry out work in houses that are self-isolating or if an individual is classed as vulnerable and being protected, unless the work is to sort out a problem which is a direct risk to the safety of the household, like emergency plumbing or repairs, and where the tradesperson is willing to do so.”

The third, on my local Nextdoor

“At 8pm tonight do not forget to stand at your front door and even hang out of your windows to give the NHS a massive clap to say thank you for all their hard work!

Outside your door, balcony or windows scream, shout, clap, whatever you feel most comfortable with for essential key workers needed to support everyone, which includes:

  • Supermarket workers
  • Delivery people for food, gas and oil
  • Engineers for gas and electric
  • Thames Water people
  • Transport for London staff
  • Ambulance crews
  • Nurses and doctors
  • Police

Anyone I’ve forgotten I apologise now, but seriously run out of ideas. You heroes keep Britain rocking.”

Vicky and I’ll be out there. You betcha!

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