Sunday, 29 March 2020

My viral thoughts

Speaking during a news conference on 12 August, 1986, the US president Ronald Reagan famously said: ‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help.’ (Source:

Not any more, they’re not. Delete and replace: ‘I’m from the Government, and there’s no help available.’ O tempora, o mores. Small government good, big government bad? Heavens above, where on earth did that idea come from? Hey, we’re all Big Spenders now.

And quite right, too.

Oh, and while we’re demolishing hoary old nostrums, remember Theresa May telling an underpaid nurse ‘There’s no magic money tree’? Well, yes, there is, actually, and there always was. It’s just that until the coronavirus appeared, governments preferred to use it to bail out the banks and pay for nonsenses such as the woefully-misnamed independent nuclear deterrent. (Four nuclear-armed submarines, each capable of carrying 40 nuclear warheads. Cost: £5 billion per year.)

As Matthew Parris correctly asked in The Times: ‘Doesn’t the apparent discovery of a magic money tree kick the props from beneath the most potent and persuasive of all Conservative beliefs: that there is no magic money tree? … The Tories had better brace themselves for serious questions about how we can [find the cash] for a virus but not to save a shipyard, or the planet from climate change. Or double the future capacity of our hospitals, or prison modernisation plans, or legal aid limits, or nurses’ and carers’ wages.’

Precisely so. Parris, with whom I rarely disagree, is a life-long Conservative from the humane, thinking wing of his party, but for him, watching Rishi Sunak turn on the Treasury taps at full throttle is akin to a devoted Catholic watching in horror as the Pope announces he intends to get married.

Government spending is about political choices, not magic money trees. Ministers spend tax-payers’ money on what they think is important, and what they think is important depends on their political philosophy. By their spending choices shall ye know them.

Exhibit A, courtesy of Harry Davies in The Guardian: ‘Documents show that officials working under former health secretary Jeremy Hunt told medical advisers three years ago to “reconsider” a formal recommendation that eye protection should be provided to all healthcare professionals who have close contact with pandemic influenza patients.

‘The expert advice was watered down after an “economic assessment” found a medical recommendation about providing visors or safety glasses to all hospital, ambulance and social care staff who have close contact with pandemic influenza patients would “substantially increase” the costs of stockpiling.’

Exhibit B, courtesy of David Aaronovitch in The Times: ‘Four years ago, the independent Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future issued a report on how something like a flu epidemic could kill millions, cost trillions and derail the global economy. It recommended an annual expenditure in the US of $4.5 billion on prevention, detection and preparedness for such an event.

‘Last September the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board published an expert report warning that “the threat of a pandemic spreading around the globe is a real one – a quick-moving pathogen has the potential to kill tens of millions of people, disrupt economies, and destabilise national security.” Its chairwoman Gro Harlem Brundtland characterised world leaders’ approach as being a “cycle of panic and neglect.”

Ministers chose to ignore the warnings. Just as local councillors chose to ignore the warnings about dangerous materials being used in cladding for tower blocks. And the warnings about flood risks unless money was spent on flood protection. And the warnings about climate change. I could go on.

Who woulda thunk it? Experts know their stuff. When they publish carefully-researched reports warning of trouble ahead, they deserve to be taken seriously. ‘Project Fear’ isn’t always politically-motivated. Sometimes it’s people who know what they are talking about trying to make cloth-eared politicians understand the foolishness of their ways.

As I fear the US is about to discover. The world’s most powerful economy, the engine room of technological innovation, the home of cutting-edge medical research, is about to be laid low by a virus that it has had months to prepare for. No one will ever again be able to argue that it doesn’t matter who sits in the Oval Office.

Here’s what his coronavirus task force coordinator said on the Christian Broadcasting Network about the current occupant:  ‘He’s been so attentive to the scientific literature, the details and the data – and his ability to analyse and integrate data that comes out of his long line of history in business has been a real benefit in these discussions about medical issues.’

You want evidence of that? Verbatim quote from the man himself: ‘You can call it a germ, you can call it flu, you can call it a virus, you know you can call it many different names. I’m not sure anybody even knows what it is.’

Or how about this photo, showing how well the President understands the scientific data?

And this attack ad makes the point even more effectively.

I’m usually reluctant to draw conclusions about crises until well after they are over. This one, no doubt, will be the subject of countless inquiries in the years to come. But here are two lessons we can learn right now: planning for worst-case scenarios is never a waste of money; and experts are always worth taking seriously.

Meanwhile, if you need a break from all this stuff, do yourself a favour and de-stress by listening to me read some of my favourite classic children’s stories on my new podcast series Robin Lustig reading stories. You can find them at all the usual podcast places or by clicking here, or here to see me on YouTube.

And when you’re in the mood for some more of my journalism, my five-part documentary series The Future of Free Speech is now being broadcast on the BBC World Service. The first two episodes are available here, and the remaining three will become available every Wednesday until mid-April. As you will discover in the final episode, the free speech debate is directly relevant to the current pandemic.


Tea Bag said...

"Oh, and while we’re demolishing hoary old nostrums, remember Theresa May telling an underpaid nurse ‘There’s no magic money tree’? Well, yes, there is, actually, and there always was."

No, there is no magic money tree. Money can always be accessed, unless you are Argentina or someplace like that, but there is always a high price. We will go through decades of austerity owing to this emergency spending. There's a war on, you know.

Tinkersdamn said...

It will be telling to see how much of these bailouts go to airlines and cruise industries. How much longer will masses find comfort in pols who promise a future that will be a thing of the past?