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Coronavirus 1: “hysteria is rife”- Sir Simon Jenkins leads the charge

Due to WordPress malfunction a smaller photo of SJ was rejected by its system

Already ‘taking the coronavirus hype with a pinch of salt’, Simon Jenkinsin his late seventies – is well fitted to do this. He writes: “For the moment, if you see a virus story containing “might” “could” “possibly” or “worst-case scenario”, stop reading. You are being fed war talk. Let them wash your hands, but not your brain”.

As usual he presents facts from a range of sources to support his argument, summarising: “We’ve been here before, and the direst predictions have not come to pass . . . we might try some history”:

  • In 1997 we were told that bird flu could kill millions worldwide. Thankfully, it did not.
  • In 1999 European Union scientists warned that BSE “could kill 500,000 people”. In total, 177 Britons died of vCJD.
  • The first Sars outbreak of 2003 was reported as having “a 25% chance of killing tens of millions” and being “worse than Aids”.
  • In 2006, another bout of bird flu was declared “the first pandemic of the 21st century”, the scares in 2003, 2004 and 2005 having failed to meet their body counts.
  • Then, in 2009, The BBC announced that swine flu “could really explode”. The chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, declared that “65,000 could die”. He spent £560m on a Tamiflu and Relenza stockpile, which soon deteriorated. 

Should public life really be conducted on a worst-case basis? 

Jenkins points out that politicians and the media love playing to the gallery during every health scare and terrorist incident: “Front pages are outrageous. No BBC presenter seems able to avoid the subject. Wash hands to save the nation. The BBC must be sponsored by the soap industry”.

And more seriously: Never, ever, should a government use war as a metaphor in a time of peace

“War is the absolute last resort of a nation facing existential collapse. It implies extreme violence. Words such as battles, fights, enemies and threats to nations are clearly directed at accreting power and suspending liberty. They encourage xenophobia and attacks on supposed “enemy agents” – at present, Asian communities. To promote this under the cover of any “worst-case scenario” is inexcusable”.

“Last week the prime minister, Boris Johnson, leaped from two weeks of inertia to give his Churchill impersonation.

“He donned a costume to look like a health worker. He dived into Cobra, haunt of publicity-hungry prime ministers, and pushed aside his health secretary, Matt Hancock. Aides drew up a “battle plan” to confront forecasts of 80% of Britons who “might be” infected, and 500,000 who might be dead.

“Never, Johnson must have murmured, would so many owe so much … to oneself. He stood behind a crested lectern, flanked by two scientists like five-star generals. He declared a four-point emergency strategy, plus 27 pages of “sweeping new powers” to meet “a national challenge”. He would call up retired health workers and army units. It was his first dry run at war.

May be seen for 21 days here:

Jenkins asks if the PM’s call for calm was genuine why was he there? The consequences of this appeal was that within hours, the stock market plunged, holiday bookings collapsed, hundreds of flights were cancelled, even to places untouched by the virus, workers were told to stay at home “Even James Bond was ordered to take fright and scurry home”.

Jenkins’ verdict: “Those who use such metaphors and exploit them to heighten panic and win obedience to authority should be dismissed from public office”.

He adds that every medical expert he has heard on the subject is reasonable and calm. the virus is highly contagious, but the “great majority” of those who develop symptoms will experience only a “mild-to-moderate but self-limiting illness”, ending:

“Of course, I could be wrong. I could get ill. Millions could die. But it is also possible that come the spring, this crisis will have passed. So for the moment, if you see a virus story containing “might” “could” “possibly” or “worst-case scenario”, stop reading. You are being fed war talk. Let them wash your hands, but not your brain”.