A bad case of epidemic-itis

spiked editor Mick Hume's Notebook in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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  • To judge by the discussion of avian flu, there are two candidates vying for the leadership of the Consternation Party, both of whom are fictional characters from the ‘classic’ BBC comedy Dad’s Army.

Private Frazer, the fatalist whose response to everything is to wail ‘We’re dooooomed!’ is standing alongside Lance-Corporal Jones, the hysteric who runs around in circles yelling ‘Don’t Panic!’ Indeed these two now seem to be running health policy in coalition. The result is no laughing matter.

No doubt the experts and authorities should have contingency plans for a flu pandemic. But such professional preparation does not justify the public circus of warnings and point-scoring that is making a melodrama out of a health crisis, even before one exists.

In a grisly public auction, bidders are competing to see who can make the biggest headlines by predicting the highest death toll. Will the British body count be 50,000, 750,000, two million or more? Meanwhile, various strains of political opportunist are trying to exploit fear of avian flu to give wings to their own prejudice. The Tories claim that it proves their case for a Homeland Security minister, Jack Straw says that it proves the importance of closer EU co-operation, little lobby groups blame the threat on modern farming, supermarkets, air travel, drug companies, whatever.

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that we are being encouraged to worry about (but not to panic, of course), and to demand vaccination against, a pandemic-causing disease that does not actually exist. The avian flu strain that has killed 60 people in Asia is transmitted from live birds to humans in close contact with them. It can pose no real threat to those of us who never meet a chicken until it is dead meat. The widely publicised fear is that this strain of avian flu might somehow mutate into one that could spread from human to human. But nobody knows when, where or even if that will happen.

The Department of Health has published a 177-page Influenza Pandemic Contingency Plan which, while admitting that everything remains ‘uncertain’ and ‘unpredictable’, broadcasts measures to vaccinate the entire population, restrict travel and ban football matches.

Yet people have not been panicking in the streets, demanding these measures to combat bird flu. The sense of fatalism and foreboding has been spread from the top downwards, by authorities whose primary concern appears to be to inoculate themselves against the charge of not doing enough. Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, who says a pandemic is ‘inevitable’, but probably not just now, embodies the Private Frazer/Lance-Corporal Jones split personality. Professor Donaldson seems to be suffering from a bad case of epidemic-itis – a worrying tendency to ascribe epidemic status to everything he wants us to worry about, from obesity and smoking to vCJD.

Yes, a pandemic may come, somewhere, sometime, somehow. So far, however, the British public appears fairly resistant to the spread of doom-mongering and panic. We may all need frequent booster shots of sobriety to keep the fever at bay.

  • ‘Influenza predictions are like weather forecasts,’ one leading epidemiologist cautioned after the 1968 epidemic.

Listening to this week’s forecasts of a ‘killer winter’, it seems worth recalling that meteorology has often been a byword for untrustworthy predictions.

The Met Office’s long-term forecast suggests that we might be in for the coldest winter in a decade. Given the mildness of recent years, that might not seem much of a threat. But Ken Livingstone, the London mayor and media showman, was quick to blow up a storm, warning Londoners to expect a winter as bad as 1963 – the worst in 200 years – with ‘quite severe loss of life’.

Then again, didn’t long-term forecasts suggest we were in for a killer heatwave in the summer? Enough with the blowing hot and cold about extreme weather. And if the Government is genuinely worried that a bad winter will expose Britain’s energy shortage, it could face down opponents and start developing a new generation of nuclear power stations. Everybody should know it takes grit to keep the country running through winter.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked
This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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