John Ashton was Regional Director of Public Health for Cumbria for 13 years, and has been an outspoken critic of the slow and uneven response to the coronavirus by the British government. He has taken up The Lowdown’s invitation to spell out his view on the growing crisis.

It is Friday 20th of March 2020 and the country is on the edge of a public health lockdown with the death march of the Corona virus trampling across the country.

In the space of a week we have gone from a situation of gross complacency, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson was content to propose that hand-washing was the answer to the biggest, most lethal, epidemic of the last 100 years, to one in which parliament has granted the government unprecedented martial powers of control over social movement outside of wartime. The economy has tanked, there is a great sense of foreboding on the streets, around the country people are becoming sick and dying in steadily increasing numbers , and finally the Prime Minister has become the visible face of catastrophe after a delay of many weeks.

In the midst of this re-run of the Great Plague of 1665/6 which killed almost a quarter of London’s population in 18 months, of the Spanish Flu of 1918/19 which is estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, and yes, of the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001 which led to the slaughter of over 6 million cows and sheep in the British Isles, not to mention Avian flu ( 1997), SARS ( 2002-3), Swine flu ( 2009) and Ebola ( 2014), we seem to have learned nothing.

Now is not the time for recrimination as we face the brunt of the oncoming onslaught of death and misery; rather it is a time for coming together as a nation , united in common purpose to defeat an enemy as great as any we have ever faced. But before we become immersed in battle, and the political and medical establishment that has failed us so badly closes ranks together with much of the mainstream media, it is necessary to put on record the litany of failings that has brought us to this dark place.

Like all the worst disasters there is a cast of thousands whose negligence should be laid bare so that those who come after can learn the lessons and make sure something like this can never happen again.

We have allowed :

– Austerity to dominate our public life and politics so that nothing else mattered. This has led to attrition of our public services, not least our NHS , which now has many fewer beds and staff and whose resilience is about to be challenged in the most extreme way

– Our public health system , once the glory of the world, to be atomised, downgraded and neglected, deprived of funds and its local and regional leaders reduced to town hall clerks

– Our Prime Minister to go absent without leave when China sent Corona as a calling card at the beginning of February. His willful failing to convene and chair regular meetings of COBRA from that time lost us 6 weeks in which we should have been putting ourselves on full alert,

scanning the horizon on a daily basis , assessing capacity and capability, ordering supplies and putting in place a comprehensive programme of CONOVID-19 testing as advised by the World Health Organisation.

– Our thinking to be dominated by a narrow line of scientistic academic thought from one science tradition when the threat cried out for 360 degree science going far beyond the biostatistical and embracing not only the social sciences and humanities but citizen science and the science of lived experience.

– The public to be treated as children to be kept in the dark and made into victims by a hubristic London elite.

– Ourselves to be offered second rate and opaque communications , always too little and too late, always patronising, always playing catch-up up and most recently beginning to rewrite history before our very eyes

And perhaps most sad of all, but so understandable in the light of the recent sterility of national life engendered by Brexit, we have been corralled into Little Englander thinking that anything from beyond our shores, however pragmatically effective, could not be relevant to an academic mindset that hears about things working in practice and strenuously denies that they might work in theory.

But now is not the time for recriminations. We are facing a national emergency of biblical proportions. By the time it is over many thousands of our people are likely to be dead but we may still be able to prevent a proportion of these.

What is now however clear is that the days of central ‘leadership’ are over; the sheer scale of what is coming will likely overwhelm our statutory services and throw us back on community organisation of a kind last seen during the May blitz of 1941. The signs are that as Brits we still have the gumption and moral fibre to rise to the task . All round the country neighbourhoods and communities are coming together and self organising with thousands of volunteers whose skills and talents can make such a difference.

So for now it’s all hands to the wheel: but when it’s over let’s build that new Jerusalem that has been so denied in recent years.

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