Bruce Anderson

Why Covid could be Britain’s new Crimea

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This is a very British story. Because we Brits are often warlike but never militaristic, we often make a balls-up of the first phase of any campaign. The Peninsular War, the Crimean War, the Zulu War in 1879, the Boer War, the second world war; defeats and humiliations sap national morale, until we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and fight back all the way to victory. This process is often abetted by improvisation and eccentricity. That has been true of the battle against Covid.

I once heard Peter Carrington say that he had been at school before science was invented. Although a generation younger, I know what he meant. In my ignorance, I made one assumption: that science was an exact science. As with the chemistry sets of my small-boyhood, if you followed the instructions, you could predict the outcome. So when the virus afflicted us, and the politicians were mocked for saying ‘follow the science’, this seemed unfair. What else were non-scientists supposed to do? It then became clear that there was no one science. Oxford said one thing, Imperial another. How was a layman supposed to decide between them? There were two further problems. First, a panic-stricken misreading of events in Italy. Second, the Tory party’s chronic failure to avoid a cloth-eared use of language. If the Italian crisis had broken out in Naples or Palermo, no one would have worried. But Bergamo: that is a city which combines German efficiency with Italian flair. If people were dying on trolleys in its hospital corridors, what would happen when the plague reached Birmingham? Here, the right words could have helped to calm everyone down. From the outset, there was only one solution to Covid: herd immunity.

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