There is not enough action. It can’t be “business as usual” if Britain is to combat the outbreakby Paul Wallace / March 4, 2020 / Leave a comment
As someone who seldom misses the opportunity to name-drop across the millennia to the ancient Greeks and Romans, Boris Johnson will be familiar with Fabius “Cunctator” (which translates as “delayer”) and his strategy in combating an enemy. Delay, he will recall from his studies at Eton, was how Fabius managed to fend off the challenge posed by Hannibal after his crushing victory over the Roman legions at Lake Trasimene. Delay featured heavily in yesterday’s “action plan” as a way to tackle the modern adversary of coronavirus. The only thing is: the delay is itself being delayed, which may make it harder to cope with the disease as it spreads more widely.
Introducing the plan, Johnson made clear that it “does not set out what the government will do, it sets out the steps that we could take at the right time and on the basis of the scientific advice.” The prime minister identified four “strands”: containing the virus, delaying its spread, researching its origins and cure, and mitigating its impact if it becomes more widespread.
Since research is already under way and will continue, there are in effect three stages in the strategy: contain, delay and mitigate. The contain phase is what is happening now. Patients testing positive for the disease are isolated and cared for in specialist hospital units, with kit and procedures to protect staff and prevent further spread of the infection. Previous close contacts of the patients are traced in order to limit further transmission.
This bespoke treatment and painstaking tracing makes sense when you have a relatively small number of patients. But if the number escalates a lot more than its current level—by Tuesday the number had risen to 51—then that will mean containment is not working. That’s why the plan envisages a second stage, in which efforts are focused on delay, slowing the spread of the disease.
As Fabius showed long ago, delay has many merits. The main benefit is that it should lower the peak number of cases, easing the potential pressure on the NHS. Hospitals should in any case be better able to cope once the winter months are over and seasonal flu subsides. Delay provides more time for research into how best to…