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If they put me in charge…

March 2, 2020

I got into thinking about the problems a government might face if a contagious disease spread out of a nation on the other side of the globe.

I think I was triggered by a newsflash from the INDEPENDENT that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was being excluded from the COBRA meeting on the coronavirus emergency.

“Hullo,” thinks I, “is that reflex Tory pettiness or is there stuff in the briefing they really don’t want him to hear?” He was only  a junior minister so perhaps he’s not a Right Honourable and they can’t swear him to secrecy on Privy Council terms. If it were me deciding I’d make the Mayor of London a Privy Councillor ex officio but it’s not.

Or is that Hizzoner trying to make a mountain out of a molehill? Could be: the story bears all the hallmarks of coming out of his public relations people.

Being unable to resolve that issue I got to thinking about the way you’d make a decision about what to do in a situation like this. You know, as if I were Sir Humphrey. (But not dead.)

And it strikes me that what you’d need to know (and  what the government probably don’t know  with any accuracy)  is the following things:

The rate at which the population is being exposed to the virus.

The percentage of the population who  don’t get sick when exposed. (There are bound to be some.)

The incubation period during which people don’t display symptoms and whether they are capable of passing the infection along while feeling fine.

How many people are going to get sick enough to need to take time off work.

How long, on the average, people take to recover from being that sick.

What proportion of the sick people need to go into hospital  for a while. 

How long  that while is.

What proportion of the sick are going to die. (Not all will die in hospital it should  be noted.)

It seems obvious to me that the important  figures are the ones I’ve highlighted. Because unless the portion of fatal cases is a lot higher than is being reported that  is only important as the whip that drives people’s choices, for  the emotional impact not  the practical one.

It will be the figures for sickness severe enough to cause absence from work that will have  the most effect on how our lives are lived. Because all organisations have a number of absences that they can tolerate before they stop being able to function.

When they stop functioning they will have knock on effects on other organisations which may also have been reduced in effectiveness by the sickness. The importance of this will vary. If my learned friend Debbie finds the civil courts are no longer staying open… well, it will have bad effects but nothing that can’t be resolved later. If the criminal courts stop functioning that’s slightly  worse. If the police are overwhelmed that’s really hurting.

If the NHS starts to fall apart then we get a secondary source of death in the diseases they can no longer treat: one that may be much worse than the disease itself. This was not, it turns out, a good time to piss off foreign  born medical staff or even foreign born hospital cleaners. Query: is there ever a good  time for that?

If the lorries delivering to the supermarkets and the  shelf stackers emptying start to fail then…

Harumph. Worried looking old gentleman shuffles his feet.

I don’t have enough mathematics to assign any  likelihood to these worries: if you look  at the cartoon illustrating this my mathematical education finished at a level just below the tiger’s. I don’t have the training in Project Management (I think that’s the right discipline) to describe how the public and private sectors interrelate in one great dependency diagram. I’m not sure anyone does.

But if it were me I’d be looking to recall military reservists, especially those in the Medical and Logistics Corps. There are probably not enough of them.

The  other question that I don’t have the mathematical talent to describe or analyse is ‘How rapidly is this likely to happen and in what stages?’ Perhaps I should ask my mathematically capable relatives. David? Mads? Erika? Or have you been drafted into the Civil Service and sworn to secrecy?

  1. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Make sure you have enough food for a fortnight stockpiled. My lodger has a lot of flour and pasta and oats. I have beans. What I don’t have is pickled onions or heinz tomato soup, my go to comfort foods. I will do a shop this week. Large jars of onions (that’ll stop anyone gettingclose enough to infect me anyhow).

  2. A fortnight? A fortnight? Gadzooks, Lindy my dove, what sort of storage space do you think I have? I’m desperately looking for ways to make the place look less crowded for when the Cat Premises Inspector comes round (if they ever do).

    I know it’s not really my concern… But I do have a taste for apocalyptic scenarios and a fantasy of being a Big Cheese having to make these big decisions. And working out the implications and the methodology is fun up to a point.

    I’ve just about worked out that sometime this week I should make some chicken soup with barley. Perhaps I’ll offer some to my gaming group when it comes round on Wednesday.

  3. Being not completely unprepared for disaster doesn’t have to mean Prepping, expensive purchases, and a massive lifestyle change, though obviously there are lots of people who want to sell you things. Just getting a slightly higher balance of canned/shelf-stable stuff vs fresh/refrigerated will help a lot. (And using it. Rotate the stocks so that you don’t end up with old untrustworthy tins at the back of your cupboard, just as you would with any other tinned stuff.)

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