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I was in Baghdad in 1998 during US airstrikes, watching missiles explode in great flashes of light as they hit their targets. There was some ineffectual anti-aircraft fire, the only result of which was pieces of shrapnel falling from the sky and making it dangerous to step outside the building we were in.

To my surprise I saw a reporter, a friend of mine with long experience of war, crawling into the open to use a satellite phone that would not work inside. When he returned, I said to him that it must have been a very important phone call for him to take such a risk. He laughed bitterly, explaining that the reason for his call was that his paper in the US had demanded that he contact some distinguished “expert” in a think tank in Washington to ask him about the air attacks.

Despite my friend being a highly informed eyewitness to the events he was describing, his editors insisted that he access the supposed expertise of the think tanker thousands of miles away. A more covert motive was probably to spread the blame if the reporter on the spot expressed criticism of the airstrikes.

I recalled this story when watching Boris Johnson and his ministers interact with his medical and scientific experts, Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, sometimes deferential, sometimes dismissive. Naivety and calculation are at work here. Politicians grappling with crises, be it a war or a pandemic, are frequently over-impressed by experts with the right bedside manner and a command of the technical jargon. They are less good, and the same applies to the media, in knowing if this apparent expertise has real practical value in averting some pressing danger. Often it does not. A doctor or an academic specialist may know a lot about how the virus operates inside the body, but have no idea and no experience of how to stop it spreading from person to person in an epidemic. This is quite a different skill.

Politicians are feckless in choosing the right experts, in part because they may be out of their depth in a crisis. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as they plug into the expertise of somebody who really does know what to do and how to do it. Governments often pick the wrong expert out of simple ignorance and because he or she is there primarily to beef up the government’s credibility and provide a scapegoat in case things go wrong.

This strategy worked well enough from the government’s point of view during the first lockdown in Britain, but it is now crashing in flames as the scientists refuse to provide political cover for failed policies.

The manifesto of the mutiny is the Sage memo of 23 September, published this week, which recommended a circuit-breaking lockdown to prevent “a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences”. Rejection of this recommendation by the government understandably got all the headlines, but towards the end of the memo there is an extraordinary admission that is surely more important than the row about circuit-breaking measures and the different regional lockdowns.

The justification for both is that they provide a pause button, which temporarily holds back the epidemic until a vaccine is discovered – which may be a long time coming. More immediately, closing down all or part of the country is supposed to win time so that an effective Test, Trace and Isolate (TTI) system can be put in place to prevent a resurgence of the virus.

This system was supposed to be at the heart of Britain’s response to coronavirus and the government is spending £12bn pounds on it. Ministers admit to its failings, but portray them as teething problems inevitable in such a big organisation created in such a short space of time. But look at how Sage, which has detailed knowledge of how TTI is really working, dismisses its performance in a single lumbering but damning sentence. This says that “the relatively low level of engagement with the system […] coupled with testing delays and likely poor rates of adherence with self-isolation suggests that the system is having a marginal impact on transmission at the moment.” Moreover, unless the system grows at the same rate of the epidemic, which it has since failed to do, then “the impact of Test, Trace and Isolate will further decline in the future”.

The grim significance of this judgement cannot be over-stressed since it means that the flagship of the Johnson government’s response to the epidemic has already capsized. And there is nothing mysterious about the cause of the TTI shipwreck, which stems from unforced and foreseeable errors by Johnson and his ministers. Many governments get it wrong when trying to choose between experts who know what they are talking about and those that do not. But in deciding to create a massive test and trace apparatus earlier this year, the government took the self-destructive decision to put this highly specialised business into the hands of amateurs with no experience.

Instead of relying on experienced public health experts with a successful record in finding, containing and isolating people infected with HIV and TB, the government handed the project over to the private sector, pouring great sums of money into the creation of a new but, in Sage’s judgement, dysfunctional system. Documents released by the Department of Health and Social Care after a Freedom of Information Act request from Sky News, explains why so much was spent for such small returns. No less than 1,114 consultants from Deloitte, few of whom are likely to be public health experts, are now employed by the government to organise Test, Trace and Isolate with each of them earning a daily fee of up to £2,360. Other consultants, such as those working for the Boston Consulting Group, are even more munificently rewarded, earning as much as £7,000 a day or £1.5m a year.


The failure of NHS Test and Trace to cope with the second wave of the epidemic, as predicted by Sage, is already with us with only 62.6 per cent of those testing positive for coronavirus being contacted so that they can be told to isolate.Not that it would do much good if the call centres reached more people according to a King’s College London survey showing that only 18 per cent of those infected are isolating.

The moment when Britain might have successfully contained the coronavirus has probably passed. This would have been very difficult but not impossible, and it could only have been carried out successfully by a government of real competence, energy and expertise. There was no chance of this being done with Boris Johnson and his crew zig-zagging and blundering so spectacularly that their antics would provide rich material for a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, except that there is nothing funny about the unnecessary deaths of so many people. Nor is there any sign that they have learned from their mistakes. As one German statesman asked despairingly of a general during the First World War who wanted to press on with some calamitous offensive: “Where does the incompetence end and the crime begin?”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Britain, Coronavirus 
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  1. Richard S says:

    What gives this most recent crisis its world-historic piquancy is that it’s all taking place against the backdrop of the (((UK))) disastrously crashing out of the EU without a deal. The Celtic nations are already rowing away from the wreck in their lifeboats.

    No less than 1,114 consultants from Deloitte, few of whom are likely to be public health experts, are now employed by the government to organise Test, Trace and Isolate with each of them earning a daily fee of up to £2,360.

    Lol, b-b-b-baby…

  2. TG says:

    Ah, indeed.

    Certainly political leaders will always have trouble determining which ‘expert’ advice to take. But serious politicians pay attention to results, and shift accordingly.

    Abraham Lincoln was not a military professional. But it didn’t take him long to realize who wasn’t getting the job done, and replace them. By the end of the civil war Lincoln had assembled a group of focused steely-eyed killers to rival any in history.

    I think also of FDR, challenged with taking control of the country during an unprecedented collapse. He initially tried all sorts of stuff most of which didn’t work. One of his advisors asked ‘what shall we do if this plan doesn’t work?” and FDR replied ‘then we shall try another plan.’ Bottom line: FDR inherited a nation in collapse. He was flexible and paid attention. He left his nation the greatest military and industrial power the world had ever seen.

    But the issue is that today, our ‘leaders’ don’t learn. They do what they are paid to do! As you point out, this new English system is spending colossal amounts of money on bogus ‘experts’- and the point is that nobody cares that they fail utterly. The right people are making tons of money, the right people are insulted from any failure, it’s all good. There is no need to pay attention, no need to adapt, no need to weigh success and failure, when it’s all just do what the system wants say your rote lines make lots of money never never criticize or raise unpleasant truths. Nice work if you can get it. Until it all falls apart. Ask the ghosts of the last Chinese emperors about that.

    • Replies: @Wyatt
    , @dimples
  3. Wyatt says:

    Bottom line: FDR inherited a nation in collapse. He was flexible and paid attention. He left his nation the greatest military and industrial power the world had ever seen.

    He also extended the Great Depression with his idiotic policies that saw people having their gold looted and their employers imprisoned for not being able to pay minimum wage. FDR had absolutely nothing to do with the actual buildup. That was the result of millions of workers organized by thousands of executives and managers who, prior to the crash, were already manufacturing producs. All FDR did was bid them to follow a government directive that created billions in debt. The economic depression didn’t even truly end until the fifties.

    FDR was a hideously awful president, but we’re never told the whole story in school or adulthood.

    • Agree: RoatanBill
    • Troll: Supply and Demand
  4. The cult of the consultant soaks up billions every year for little return and often leaving dysfunctional systems in its wake.

    One state in Australia was foolish enough to contract out the provision of quarantine accommodation to private sector security companies. Those companies pocketed the money and immediately hired the cheapest people they could find (workers on temporary visas). And guess what? Those minimum wage workers weren’t covered by the social safety net enjoyed by Australians, so they had to work every job they could find just to make rent, and they didn’t stop working when they were feeling sick. They ended up being vectors carrying covid in to old peoples homes and even between quarantined hotels.

    The businesses blamed the government for being dumb enough to hire them in the first place, but they’ll keep the money though.

    • Replies: @RoatanBill
  5. polistra says:

    Murder is not incompetence or “fecklessness”. The politicians know exactly what they’re doing. They’re killing everyone.

    • Agree: RoatanBill
  6. @Marshal Marlow

    If people are making £7,000 a day, then by definition the scheme is a success.

    It’s all in the perspective on has.

  7. A123 says:

    Look at the incompetent experts who are providing the “advice”.

    — God Emperor Xi’s, Wuhan Health Organization [WHO] is now saying masks do not work.

    –I suppose that is better than Big Pharma’s Dr. Fauci who was originally against masks but is now for them. He also spiked HQ/ZN as a generic treatment to benefit his paymasters.

    The WHO and Fauci really are criminals. Their intentional disinformation caused people to die.

    The only politician who immediately springs to mind as criminal is Grandma killer Cuomo who forced contagious elderly into nursing homes. It is no wonder that NY #1 is for death.

    PEACE 😇

  8. dimples says:

    “He (FDR) left his nation the greatest military and industrial power the world had ever seen.”

    All by virtue of military Keynesianism, an art which his descendants, including and up to Trumpstein, have continued to perfect.

    • Agree: Supply and Demand
  9. The Surveillance State and Medical Mafia are out of control. They have proven themselves to be
    Monsters. They destroy everything. They steal everything in their sight and claim it as their own. They pose grave dangers to human life, society, economies, countries, and the entire world. They spy, they stalk, they stael, they kill and kill and kill and kill and keep other people’s labors for themselves and destroy other people’s health for their own predatious gluttonous extravagances. That is not health care, it is quackery, snake oil, fraud that is worthy of prosecution and imprisonment. The financial sector, tech sector, government surveillance/police state, university/research/regulatory divisions, MIC, NGO/charity sectors, and media are all involved in the largest global conspiracy ever perpetrated against humanity other than Santa Clause.

    We should call this scamdemic Santa Clause in Reverse, that breaks into people’s lives with little green men and steals everything in sight like a gang of masked thieves.

    They steal from the middle class and the poor, and give to the rich. They steal from the honest and the competent and give to the corrupt and mentally incompetent. They steal the emotional security and financial security from the young and the innocent of all ages, to give emotional security and financial security to the corrupt and middle aged or older, which is emotional security and financial security that they are not entitled to because they are corrupt and incompetent. They are entitled to go to prison and nothing more than that.

    Andrea Iravani

  10. In This Instance in Wisoconsin:

    That is really weird that Tony Evers turned State Fair Grounds into a hospital! Wisconsin has so many hospitals! This is obviously a coordinated show refusing to admit as many patients as they are able too! Hospitals in South Eastern  Wisconsin are practically as prevalent as churches! Like Bill De’Blasio did in NYC for show! This is total fraud! And State Fair Grounds for a hospital where animals are brought in every year?! It is the least sterile environment possible! Tony Evers and whomever else chose State Fair Grounds really deserve to immediately be prosecuted for careless disregard for human life and reckless behavior as well as gross negligence!

    It’s a political stunt! I have been getting fliers from Democrats running for ofgice all using Coronavirus as a platform led by Citizen Action and sponsored by Citizen Action which is a lobbying industry for healthcare that poses as a charity. Citizen Action’s Dr. Robert Craig was one of  the authors of the Affordable Care Act which excluded a public option from healthcare when Democrats controlled The Executitive and both Legislative branches. They conveniently forget that, and now demand what they themselves refused to allow! Health care is a racket!

    South Eastern Wisconsin has 29 hospitals and a population of 
    2,049,110 people. There is a total of 17,628 hospital beds in SE Wisconsin. That would mean that .085% of that population to be in tne hospital at any given time.

    In comparison, across Europe, there are 538 hospital beds per 100,000 people in contrast to 860 beds per 100,000 in SE WI.

    I’m surprised that they didn’t just do it at the Milwaukee Zoo! The people in this state are sick as hell, which I have been posing about

    Andrea Iravani


  12. anarchyst says:

    Study: Bacterial pneumonia was main killer in 1918 flu pandemic
    Aug 22, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – It was secondary bacterial pneumonia—not the influenza virus by itself—that killed most of the millions who perished in the 1918 flu pandemic, which suggests that current pandemic preparations should include stockpiling of antibiotics and bacterial vaccines, influenza researchers reported this week.
    Experts at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) examined pieces of lung tissue preserved from 58 victims of the 1918 pandemic and reviewed reports distilled from thousands of autopsies to reach their conclusions, published online by the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
    “Histological and bacteriologic evidence suggests that the vast majority of influenza deaths resulted from secondary bacterial pneumonia,” says the report by David M. Morens, MD, Jeffery K. Taubenberger, MD, PhD, and NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, MD.


    Many accounts of the 1918 pandemic have emphasized how quickly patients succumbed to the infection, creating an impression that a large share of the victims died of the virus’s direct effects on the lungs or the immune system’s intense response to the infection. But the new report suggests that more than 90% actually died of invading bacterial pneumonia after the virus wiped out cells lining the bronchial tubes and lungs.
    “In essence, the virus landed the first blow while bacteria delivered the knockout punch,” said Fauci in an NIAID news release.
    Lung sections and autopsy reviews
    The researchers pursued two strategies. First, they examined sections newly cut from blocks of lung tissue preserved from 58 military members who died during the pandemic, representing all known 1918 flu cases in a tissue collection at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
    Second, they reviewed 1918-era literature on influenza pathology and bacteriology, gleaning 109 reports providing useful bacteriologic information from 173 series of autopsies. These covered 8,398 autopsies from 15 countries.
    Nearly all of the lung tissue examinations yielded “compelling histologic evidence of severe acute bacterial pneumonia, either as the predominant pathology or in conjunction with underlying pathologic features now believed to be associated with influenza virus infection,” including damage to the bronchial epithelium, the report says. Bacteria were often present in “massive numbers.”
    In perusing the contemporary autopsy studies, the authors found 96 reports of lung tissue culture results from 5,266 patients, in which only 4.2% showed no bacterial growth. In 68 “higher quality” autopsy series, representing 3,074 patients, 92.7% of the lung cultures were positive for at least one bacterial species. Cultures of blood samples from another 1,887 victims were positive for bacteria in 70.3% of cases.
    At the time of the pandemic, nearly all experts agreed that deaths were almost never caused by the then-unidentified flu virus itself, “but resulted directly from severe secondary pneumonia caused by well-known bacterial ‘pneumopathogens’ that colonized the upper respiratory tract,” the report states. The most common pathogens were pneumococci, streptococci, and staphylococci.
    The authors also reviewed evidence from the relatively mild pandemic of 1957-58 and determined that most deaths were due to secondary bacterial pneumonia. In addition, the “few relevant data from the 1968-1969 pandemic” reflect the same pattern, they write.
    “We believe that the weight of 90 years of evidence, including the exceptional but largely forgotten work of an earlier generation of pathologists, indicates that the vast majority of pulmonary deaths from pandemic influenza viruses have resulted from poorly understood interactions between the infecting virus and secondary infections due to bacteria that colonize the upper respiratory tract,” the report says.
    Severity still unexplained
    The researchers say their findings leave the extreme severity of the 1918 pandemic unexplained. Because they found evidence of many different types of invading bacteria, it was probably not due to specific virulent bacterial strains. Instead, they speculate that “any influenza virus with an enhanced capacity to spread to and damage bronchial and/or bronchiolar epithelial cells” could pave the way for bacteria in the upper respiratory tract to invade the lungs and cause a severe infection.
    The authors suggest that, as in past pandemics, secondary bacterial pneumonia is likely to be the leading killer in the next pandemic—if it is caused by “a human-adapted virus similar to those recognized since 1918.” If that’s the case, they assert, pandemic preparations must go beyond the development and stockpiling of influenza vaccines and antiviral drugs; efforts should also include the stockpiling of antibiotics and bacterial vaccines to protect against bacterial pneumonia.
    However, the investigators also write that if a derivative of the H5N1 avian flu virus causes a future pandemic, lessons from past pandemics may not be “strictly applicable.” That virus’s pathogenic mechanisms may be atypical because it is poorly adapted to humans and because it causes unusual pathology in animals. On the other hand, they say that if the H5N1 virus fully adapts to humans, the spectrum of resulting disease could revert to something more similar to what was seen in past pandemics.
    Study may change thinking
    William Schaffner, MD, an influenza expert and chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, said the new study may change the general understanding of the causes of death in the 1918 pandemic.
    “The general notion at least heretofore is that there were two kinds of deadly illnesses, the first caused by the virus all by itself,” Schaffner told CIDRAP News. “We know that the influenza virus can cause primary pneumonia, and the time course was so brief from onset to death in many patients that it was thought this was likely due to an extremely virulent influenza virus—an influenza virus on steroids.”
    But it has also been assumed that bacterial pneumonia often complicated flu cases then, as it does today, and was fatal for many patients in that pre-antibiotic era, he added. “So the general notion was that there were two causes of death. The general sense was that the former, the virus, was more important than the latter. This comes largely from repeated stories about the rapidity with which this carried people off.”
    But the findings of Morens and colleagues indicate that secondary bacterial pneumonia was the more common cause of death. “The impressive thing is, though this is a tiny, tiny sample of what went on, they showed bacterial pneumonia was extraordinarily common,” Schaffner said. “I think they make the point that it was in every one of the autopsy sections they examined. I have to tell you that made me sit up.”
    He suggested one possible source of inadvertent bias in the study: Because the evidence is derived from autopsies, the subjects included in the study could represent a skewed sample. The victims most likely to be autopsied were those who died in hospitals, and they probably were less sick initially and had a longer course of illness than those who died at home, Schaffner said. Those who died at home were much less likely to be autopsied.
    Nevertheless, the study is an important contribution for showing that bacterial pneumonia was common in the 1918 pandemic, Schaffner added. “I’m still not convinced that that bimodal concept [of the causes of death in 1918] is not true,” he said. “These fellows have nailed the second part; I’m just not sure they represent the entire population of deaths.”
    Schaffner observed that the idea of including bacterial pneumonia in pandemic planning has already been under discussion for a while. “But the fact that Tony Fauci lends his name to these discussions gives them impetus because of his central role in the pandemic planning process in Washington,” he said.
    He said the federal stockpile of drugs and medical supplies for public health emergencies includes some antibiotics, but they are mainly intended for bioterrorism-related diseases, such as ciprofloxacin for anthrax. But some of the antibiotics might be useful for both bioterrorism-linked diseases and pneumonia, he said.
    No vaccines to prevent bacterial pneumonia have been included in the federal stockpile, Schaffner said. However, he noted that between 40% and 50% of people aged 65 and older have been vaccinated against pneumococcal disease, as recommended by federal guidelines.
    Morens DM, Taubenberger JK, Fauci AS. Predominant role of bacterial pneumonia as a cause of death in pandemic influenza: implications for pandemic influenza preparedness. J Infect Dis 2008 Oct;198 (published online Aug 18

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