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An outbreak of common sense

The Spectator on the collective British reaction to swine flu

6 May 2009

12:00 AM

6 May 2009

12:00 AM

We did not need to be told to keep calm and carry on — that seems to be our instinctive, collective British reaction to crises. In the case of swine flu, as with bird flu, (or even Spanish flu) the public has reacted with commendable common sense. There has been no mass absenteeism from work, no fad for face-masks; not even the closure of schools has provoked a panic.

The national mood was summed up by the infected schoolgirl who announced that it was actually no worse than having a cold. Even the 24-hour news channels, though desperate for any story that can fill their air time, have given up trying to whip people up into a swine-flu fever.

The Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson, still seems to hope that the flu might yet sweep across the country like some biblical plague. Indeed, we have been treated over the past few days to the bizarre spectacle of the public and the newspapers trying to calm a government that is keen to be in crisis mode. There are sound scientific reasons to remain vigilant — there is a chance that this flu could return in more virulent form in the autumn. But so far the facts do not support the attempts to place us all at panic stations. At the time of writing there have been roughly 1,500 cases in 21 countries, and yet only 30 people have died. This suggests that this variation of flu is only slightly more lethal than the normal seasonal variety.

Much of the original, misplaced panic came from a crude attempt to extrapolate from what happened in Mexico. This ignored the fact that Mexico is a country where roughly half the population do not have health insurance and have to pay for visits to the doctor and for drugs. Even within Mexico, the deaths have been concentrated in Mexico City. Of the 26 deaths the Mexican government ascribes to this flu, 20 have been in the capital — a city of 20 million people where a third of the population live in poverty. South Hampstead and Alleyn’s, two London private schools closed by the flu, have little in common with the barrio schools of Mexico’s capital.

Of course, there are political benefits in a national emergency for a beleaguered Prime Minister; especially one that cannot conceivably be blamed on him. He has the chance to look capable and commanding without culpability. But was it really necessary to appoint a ‘flu tsar’ — Ian Dalton, rumoured to be on a six-figure salary — just as the virus seems to be under control? Politicians and bureaucrats’ instant desire to announce that the worst-case scenario was likely to unfold exemplified the risk-averse, back-covering culture that so dominates and hampers our public sector. It is hard to think of a more irritating sign of the nanny state than the leaflet the government has sent to every home, telling us to cover our mouths when we sneeze and to wash our hands afterwards.

Officialdom likes to intone seriously after every crisis that lessons will be learned. Well, the lessons from this latest one are increasingly clear. First, trust in the good judgment of the public — they are able to make sensible decisions about what risks are worth taking. Second, heavy-handed interventions from politicians can do more harm than good. Joe Biden, the US Vice President, declared that people should avoid crowded, confined places. This was as alarmist as it was absurd.

The final lesson is that we should not confuse panic with preparedness. The government should ensure that it has adequate quantities of Tamiflu and the like. It should have contingency plans for the worst-case scenario. But there is no need to head to the nearest broadcasting studio to warn of a 1918-style pandemic as soon as someone sneezes.

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