Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

19 July 2009

Swine flu: the scourge for our times

Though a Christian, I’m not a subscriber to the view that new diseases, when they first make an appearance on the world stage, are scourges sent by the Almighty as a punishment for our manifold sins. Disease affects the ‘innocent’ just as much as the ‘guilty’; and it would be crass to think, as some defenders and detractors of Christianity alike appear to, that the Christian view is that all suffering represents some sort of direct chastisement for one’s personal sins – even though it may be regarded as something that can be a means to help free the individual from sin. But then that’s a very complex, theological discussion, for another time . . ..

But there does sometimes seem to be what could be called a ‘symbolic appropriateness’ to certain diseases, in some of their aspects. AIDS struck both the sexually promiscuous in the West, and innocent haemophiliacs and large swathes of impoverished Africa, at the end of two decades of ‘sexual liberation’ that had wrecked the previous Christian moral consensus on sexuality and the family. So it was ‘tempting’, but simplistic, to see this as God’s answer: ‘the best way to avoid STDs is lifelong monogamy’, i.e. to adhere to the teaching of Christianity and other faiths on sexual morality and the role of marriage.

Similarly, with swine flu, this struck at just the point where people in Britain were outraged at the way their political leaders had had their ‘snouts in the trough’: claiming for inappropriate ‘expenses’ worth tens of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds in some instances. Well, if we eat at the pigs’ table, no wonder when we catch a cold off them!

Of course, it’s not just the politicians that have been acting like greedy pigs. Swine flu comes in the wake of the credit crunch, brought about by the reckless actions of unregulated bankers driven by the prospect of obscene bonuses. As swine flu looked to be spreading through the UK in an exponential manner over the last few weeks, so more and more parts of what is referred to as ‘public life’ were also being revealed as having been infected with the virus of the ‘bonus bingeing culture’ (BBC): snuffling one’s way to fortune through dubious expenses and ‘performance incentives’ on top of already generous salary awards.

So in this context, it’s ironically ‘appropriate’ that Britain has been particularly severely affected by swine flu: the ‘scourge’ for our previous, and continuing, lust for money? Except, of course, that it’s the innocent children, elderly and sick that are ‘paying the price’ in the case of swine flu – just as it’s the ordinary hard-working wage earners, mortgage payers and voters that are literally paying the price for the bankers’ and politicians’ greed and incompetence.

And perhaps this greed and incompetence are the ‘real’ reasons why swine flu has spread so uncontrollably throughout the UK; that is, maybe the greed and incompetence have had tangible, practical consequences that have assisted the transmission of the virus. Everyone keeps on congratulating the government on how well it’s been handling swine flu. For example, even on BBC Radio Four’s Any Questions on Friday, one of the opposition spokesmen said he thought the government had dealt with the crisis commendably. Swine flu, it seems, is off limits for regular party politics, and nobody seems to be asking why. Should we not be as suspicious of politicians’ motives in this regard as we are in other matters?

‘Handling’ swine flu is precisely what they’re doing. The response to the whole epidemic is being ‘managed’ by a shadowy Whitehall body called the Civil Contingencies Committee, as my previous post reported. This body not only co-ordinates the whole response to the epidemic at a ‘national’, i.e. UK-wide, level; but it also manages ‘communications’ regarding the disease – i.e. it manages the news output on the topic. This latter observation accounts for the fact that after every report on TV and radio on the latest unfortunate deaths from swine flu, they’ve been continually repeating the official observation that ‘all the victims to date have had underlying serious medical conditions’. If necessary, a medical expert or even the Chief Medical Officer for England (and, doubtless, in ‘regional’ output in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this will be their equivalents to the CMO) pop up with bland reassurances to the effect that this is no more severe an outbreak of flu than regular seasonal flu (except it’s out of season) and people should not be alarmed, just follow the advice that’s been given out, contact the helpline to apply for Tamiflu (is the helpline up and running now? it wasn’t for ages), etc, etc.

Wet blanket, wet blanket: no criticism, no scrutiny of the actions of the ‘authorities’ permitted, in the interests of not spreading panic just as fast as the virus itself is spreading. Do we know whether in fact it’s true that all / most of the victims so far had ‘serious’ underlying conditions? And what qualifies as a serious condition? A good friend of mine’s got diabetes, and we’ve both just had severe, unseasonal ‘colds’. Have we just in fact had swine flu without realising it (there’s a lot of it about in the local area)? She went to the GP but I didn’t bother. She wasn’t given Tamiflu, despite the fact that people with diabetes are on the ‘at risk’ list, although she was prescribed antibiotics. Despite this, if she had unfortunately succumbed to swine flu – if that’s what it was – would her death have been explained away as being due to her having a ‘serious underlying condition’ – diabetes – alongside swine flu?

The point is, I don’t feel the epidemic is being handled well or consistently, despite – or perhaps because of – the vast propaganda machinery that’s being mobilised to reassure ‘the public’. I don’t generally go in for conspiracy theories; but if it would be wrong to call the present unwillingness of opposition politicians to call the government to account for their response to swine flu a ‘conspiracy of silence’, then it does at least appear to be a concerted, organised silence. Organised by the Civil Contingencies Committee, no doubt: the “Government’s dedicated crisis management mechanism”, as the official document puts it – a body that would step in to run the shop in the event of war or a devastating terrorist attack – has obviously sat all the party leaders down in a darkened room and reached a gentleman’s agreement with them along the following lines, as I imagine the scene: “Now, look here, chaps; we’re facing a pretty serious crisis here that could have devastating consequences for all of us, if you see what I mean. Now we don’t want to be seen to be spreading panic among the public or to let the tabloids get hold of this thing, do we (well, we’ll take care of the popular press, don’t you worry)? Let’s all pull together on this one, shall we? We’ve got a well organised contingency plan, everything’s in place to deal with the situation as best as possible, and even those johnnies from the devolved administrations are on message. So let’s not rock the boat, shall we, and we’ll keep you informed about what’s happening from day to day. OK?”

Joking aside, everybody is on message, and that’s what’s so disconcerting because it’s so exceptional. The government has clearly decided that this is a ‘national crisis’, as they’ve activated the official crisis-management mechanism. And that involves deliberately shutting down media and political scrutiny of how things are progressing, precisely in order to reassure the public, supposedly.

But if it really is a national crisis, wouldn’t it have been far more effective in combating the disease – let alone far more honest – to have acknowledged this fact up front right from the start of the outbreak? But then think what could have happened: normal life, i.e. ‘business as normal’, might have had to be shut down. No international travel, either out of or into the UK. Serious restrictions placed on people ‘suspected’ of having come down with the virus and on those with whom they’d come into contact. Whole businesses, organisations, schools and vital infrastructure could have been paralysed. Think of the impact on the economy, stupid! Only the other day, they were discussing projections of what could happen – in the future – if swine flu continued to spiral out of control: a potential loss of 5% of GDP! Well, such a loss would have been virtually inevitable if the kind of radical measures I’ve just suggested had been taken at the start of the outbreak with the aim of trying to prevent swine flu from spreading among the general population. Better to just underplay it; not impose strict quarantine measures; and hope we can ‘contain’ the virus’s spread and that it won’t be too virulent. And yet, as a consequence, it appears to have got completely out of control and we may yet face those economic consequences anyway!

But even now, the politicians don’t want any whistleblowers going about accusing the government of incompetence in its handling of the crisis and asking it to come clean about the extent of the epidemic and its likely effect on the economy. Why? Firstly, because their own role in sitting back and letting the Civil Contingencies Committee take charge, and in downplaying the disease so as not to damage the economy, will be exposed. There’s a general election coming along, you know. Secondly, they don’t want even more harm to be done to those fragile green shoots of economic recovery by people making out that swine flu is some great national crisis and serious threat to public health, despite the fact that that’s precisely what the government thinks it is.

After all, this is the summer tourist season, and tourism is one of Britain’s biggest industries. We don’t want people from other countries thinking it’s unsafe to come into Britain now, do we? So what if they do contract the disease here; at least, we won’t have to deal with the consequences! And does anybody know – and have the media investigated – how seriously the tourist industry has been affected by foreign nationals’ fear of coming into Britain and catching swine flu? A search for ‘swine flu’ in the ‘Enjoy England‘ website (“The official website for breaks and days out in England”) yielded the response: “Unfortunately we are unable to complete your request at this time”. A general web search on ‘impact of swine flu on British tourism’ yielded little of relevance to the question of how swine flu was affecting levels of visits to Britain by foreign nationals; although the Daily Telegraph have a dedicated page that today carried reports on restrictions being placed on British nationals who are thought to have swine flu travelling abroad.

The website of English UK – an umbrella organisation for the ‘TEFL’ (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) industry in the UK – reported three days ago that it was ‘business as usual for UK ELT industry’: “At present, the virus is no more dangerous than a typical seasonal flu and the UK is well-prepared for such an outbreak.  English Language Teaching (ELT) providers are operating as normal”. However, the organisation and its members are participating in a survey being carried out by a quango known as TIER (Tourism Industry Emergency Reaction Group) (!) monitoring the impact of swine flu on UK tourism. It turns out that submissions can be made to this survey until 26 July, and presumably, they won’t issue their report till some time later. Bit too late to do anything to prevent innocent visitors to the UK from taking swine flu back to their own countries, or worse. But, as they say, it’s ‘business as usual’.

So swine flu may not have been inflicted on the UK as a divine chastisement for the corruption and greed of our national institutions, politicians and bankers; but its rapid spread certainly has been encouraged by the unwillingness of the said institutions, politicians and bankers to disrupt their precious cash cow known as the UK economy. And don’t expect them to be too open and transparent any time soon about their role in downplaying the disease and acquiescing at half-hearted containment measures in the hope that the economic and political damage could be limited. Just as well that swine flu has turned out to be relatively ‘mild’, at least ‘at present’, as the English UK website puts it. Just imagine the carnage if it had turned out to be as lethal as they were fearing bird flu might be a couple of years ago! And, of course, swine flu could still turn nasty in that way, and we don’t know how it will mutate over the autumn and winter, and over the coming years. Next time we might not be so lucky; but can we have confidence that the initial response by the ‘authorities’ will be any different?

There is one thing we can do about it. After all, we’re not obliged to let the pigs eat at our table; and, at the next election, we get the chance to boot them out of the door.

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3 July 2009

Government response to swine flu: over-complicated by devolution?

In media coverage yesterday of the change in the official response to swine flu from ‘containment’ to ‘treatment’, I was struck by the usual ambiguity as to whether the information provided related to England only or the whole of the UK. For instance, in the BBC News website’s report, it stated: “Andy Burnham, the health secretary in England, said: ‘The national focus will be on treating the increasing numbers affected by swine flu. Cases are doubling every week and on this trend we could see over 100,000 cases per day by the end of August'”. Pleasing that the BBC correctly characterises Andy Burnham as the English health secretary; but then, is the “national focus” one for England only or for the whole of the UK? Probably the latter, as the 100,000 cases per day figure was being talked of as the UK-wide total. But all the same, this got me wondering: how is the response to swine flu being co-ordinated – if at all – between the UK government and the devolved administrations, with their separate responsibilities for health care? And is the apparent failure of the containment strategy in part a consequence of different approaches having been adopted in the different UK nations?

Unlike the radio and TV coverage, the BBC website article did report that, “Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced similar changes to the flu strategy at a simultaneous briefing in Edinburgh”. So it appeared that there is a single UK-wide strategy and a co-ordinated response across the different health departments. This was even more apparent when I visited the Department of Health [England]‘s and the Scottish Government‘s websites and read their remarkably similar statements on the change in tactics.

After much further investigation, it turns out that the Department of Health [England] has retained the responsibility for drawing up the overall UK strategy for dealing with flu pandemics, along with the lead role in co-ordinating the operational response to any actual outbreak; although the devolved administrations are supposed to put in place their own NHS and civil-contingency systems and resources for responding to any crisis – in line with the UK plan.

As the government’s national framework document puts it: “A ministerial committee (MISC 32), comprising ministers from across central government departments and the devolved administrations, oversees and coordinates national preparations for an influenza pandemic”. Then, in the event of the World Health Organisation declaring that a pandemic has reached phase 4 or higher (currently, we’re on phase 6 for swine flu), the following happens: “the Government’s dedicated crisis management mechanism – the Civil Contingencies Committee (CCC) – [is] activated in support of the Department of Health. The CCC will direct central government activities, coordinate the wider response, make key strategic and tactical decisions on the countermeasures required and determine national priorities. The CCC will be guided by input from central departments and agencies and from local responders through Regional [English] Civil Contingencies Committees (RCCCs) and the devolved administrations. It will work with the national News Coordination Centre to maintain public confidence [i.e. manage the news]”.

So we’re currently in a situation where a nebulous Civil Contingencies Committee is co-ordinating the response UK-wide, in keeping with a pre-established plan, and managing the news in such a way as to maintain morale. No wonder that the English-UK and devolved health departments appeared yesterday to be singing perfectly from the same hymn sheet in their media pronouncements in a display of quite exceptional synchronisation and unity! And that, despite the imminent prospect of 100,000 new cases of swine flu per week, we’re being blandly reassured that we’re now moving in a controlled, pre-planned way from containment to ‘treatment’ – implying that it can be successfully ‘treated’ in the vast majority of cases; whereas, in reality, we’re all just desperately praying that it doesn’t suddenly become much more virulent or resistant to Tamiflu.

But, as I said above, one can’t help wondering whether the failure of the containment approach (surely, prevention is better than cure?) is partly the result of the wheels of co-ordination between the UK central government and the devolved administrations not running as smoothly as yesterday’s united front would have us believe. If you read the national framework document, the sheer number of organisations – international, national-UK, ‘regional’ (English), devolved and local – that are involved in formulating strategies and co-ordinating the response is mind-boggling. Amid this already hugely complicated landscape the fact that the NHS and civil-contingency measures are replicated with slight variations in each of the devolved nations and the ‘English regions’ surely cannot help to streamline processes and ensure that everybody knows what everybody else in the chain of command is supposed to be doing.

Take a look at the section that deals with the different organisational elements involved in each of the devolved administrations (pages 49 to 52). This is a masterpiece of bureacracy-speak, and of bureacracy full stop, with departments, committees, sub-committees, groups, sub-groups, directors, trusts, agencies, directorates, etc. etc. all having a role to play. I can’t prove that having these complicated and distinct organisational schemes in each of the devolved countries has contributed to the ineffectiveness of the containment measures; but they surely cannot help. And it is the case that Scotland is one of the ‘hotspots’ of the disease, in part – allegedly – because no Scottish-Government advice for people to stop travelling to Mexico was given out in the early stages of the outbreak.

But, for the time being, we are supposed to be resting assured that all the UK health departments are acting perfectly in concert according to a well-structured plan. But the only reason they’re able to both act in this way, and be on message to such an extent, is that their actions are being centrally directed by a shadowy Whitehall committee, which is also driving the media communications in such a way as to reassure the populace that ‘the government’ has everything under control.

And one of the principal, and well-tried, weapons of media misinformation at the fingertips of the national ‘News Coordination Centre’ is to imply – to gullible people in England, at least – that everything forms part of a homogeneous UK-wide health-care and emergency-response system. Well, the plan may be UK-wide – and the operational direction currently is, too, now we’re in an advanced phase of the pandemic – but the delivery certainly is not.

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