Boris Johnson has, somewhat belatedly, responded to the coronavirus threat by convening the COBRA emergency committee which drew up a “battle plan” to deal with a potential pandemic in Britain. Most of it is common sense including calling up newly-retired doctors and nurses to help if the outbreak spreads. Other measures being considered include encouraging home working, relaxing pupil-teacher ratios in schools and the possible cancellation of major sporting events.
But the best thing that the Government can do is to study the Chinese experience and try to apply their methods in dealing with the possible spread of the virus throughout the country. The virus first appeared in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in China, in December. It rapidly spread across other parts of the country. The people’s government responded with lock-downs, quarantines and the mass mobilisation of the medical services including the speedy construction of new hospitals to deal with the crisis. People’s China’s comprehensive, rigorous and thorough-going prevention and control measures have now contained the spread of the epidemic and the positive trend in the prevention and control work is expanding. Over 33,000 people have recovered in Hubei and they now outnumber existing confirmed cases for the first time.
By taking these strong measures the people’s government is doing its very best to ensure the health of the Chinese people and also working together with the World Health Organisation and other countries to safeguard global public health security. This is what communist leadership and a planned economy can do in times of crisis.
No one expects Britain to do the same. Successive Tory governments have starved the national health service of funds needed to maintain our hospitals to the standards that one would expect from a country whose economy is still the fifth largest in the world.
Dr Rinesh Parmar, the chair of the Doctors' Association UK (DAUK) campaigning group, says that an outbreak of coronavirus could cripple the health service.
A recent DAUK survey showed that many doctors fear the NHS is not well prepared to deal with a major outbreak of coronavirus.
More than 99 per cent of 1,618 NHS front-line medics questioned did not agree with the assurances given by Boris Johnson that the service will cope if it is hit by a surge in the number of people falling ill.
They believe the health service is already stretched with too few intensive care beds and GP surgeries that are struggling to meet patient demand.
“The truth is the NHS has already been brought to its knees and many doctors fear that our health system simply won’t cope in the event of influx of coronavirus patients,” Dr Parmar said.
“With nearly 10,000 doctor vacancies and 43,000 nurse vacancies [in England] the NHS is already understaffed to deal with demand. A&E waiting times are the worst on record. Intensive care units are at capacity and are even struggling to admit patients who are critically unwell or awaiting cancer surgery”.
But there are certain things the Government can do. Pumping money into the health service to recruit the health workers needed to cope with the crisis would be a good start. Crash building of emergency hospitals along with emergency legislation to give every worker the right to statutory sick pay from the first day of absence to cover going into quarantine or self-isolation to prevent the further spread of the virus is another.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, says the issue of zero hours contracts needs to be addressed, so that those who fall ill can take time off in order to self- isolate. Nearly two million workers do not qualify for statutory sick pay, including 1 in 10 working women and 23 per cent of zero-hours contract workers. .