Andrew Murrison: There can now be no question about the Government’s timeline for opening up. June 21 must stand.

9 Jun

Rt Hon Dr Andrew Murrison MP has been leading military vaccination teams in London and the South West.

The vaccination programme has been truly awesome. It’s been a privilege to be involved at the coalface, leading military vaccination teams that have protected thousands of people. So successful has the national programme been, there can now be no question about the Government’s timeline for opening up. June 21 must stand.

It’s been a struggle reconciling Dominic Cummings’ select committee download with a series of NAO reports on the Government’s handling of the pandemic. God they’re dull, but there’s useful stuff between those beige pages for those that can be bothered to look. By the time the full public inquiry comes around workmanlike scrutineers like the NAO will have likely made all the learning points. Hopefully this government and the next will have actioned them. The only thing for the inquiry will be to send out the tumbrils. That’s what the media, opposition and some figures on the government benches are slavering over like Pavlov’s dogs.

Meanwhile government will be broadly content with the “learnings” published by the NAO last month in the latest of its pandemic handling series. But privately ministers will have been less pleased with the rusty old tool box they opened 15 months ago. On that at least – the absence of state preparedness in the UK and across the western world – Cummings is right. To their credit, ministers have been retooling public health institutions at pace to deal with infections – the old enemy that never went away.

Happily, I’ve spent 10 weeks well away from our barely functioning parliament giving and supervising thousands of jabs in London and the South West. I have some learnings of my own, none of which feature in the NAO report.

First, we need to decide what price in lives lost from a particular cause is societally acceptable before kicking off a war economy with all its downside in liberty, livelihood, health and the future of young people. What triggers future government intervention on the unprecedented scale endured since last March?

We have some figures that help frame the debate. Six years ago we lost over 28,000 to seasonal flu. Don’t remember? Me neither, and I can’t find any reference to it in Hansard for that year. We haven’t – at least up to now – locked down or even done the hands, face, space thing as seasonal flu sweeps through each winter.

There’s an even bigger figure that society is apparently willing to tolerate. As the Chief Medical Officer pointed out last month we lose in excess of 90,000 each year to smoking. That puts a huge, completely avoidable, burden on health services whose protection we were told was one of the prime imperatives at the start of this crisis.

Indeed, protecting the NHS was the reason for restrictions incalculably more onerous than a ban on the poison tobacco. Chris Whitty did not say, save lives, protect the NHS, ban smoking, but he might have done because that’s where his logic leads.

But we have closed down society for more than a year to save the same sort of numbers. Here’s where logic rubs up against political reality. In tackling the most agonising question, we don’t “follow the science” at all. No politician can possibly do so.

I love experts. I used to be one. But it’s in their nature, singularly and collectively, to lay it on thick. Their industry depends on it. They play it safe – none of them wants to be caught understating risk. Wider societal and economic downside is not their prime consideration and “could” is one of the most mutable words in the English language.

Chief among experts to be handled with care are behavioural scientists who have been second guessing how people might react to government interventions. Their product – project fear, nudging – verges on the sinister. Furthermore, empirically on the light side, it has a habit of misfiring. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with anecdote, only that it has to be properly weighed and balanced.

Chatting with people while vaccinating in East London, for example, shaped my thinking about why some groups were proving harder to reach than others. A general scepticism of the State’s good intentions is in play mixed with distrust of the pharmaceutical industry – what readers of John le Carré’s novel set against medical trials in developing countries might call The Constant Gardener effect.

We need to harness the volunteer spirit that has been such a positive feature of this pandemic. The yellow vested volunteer stewards at test and vaccination centres putting themselves at risk and out in all weathers have been fantastic. I have seen medical students drafted in like it’s the 1940s and lay people – St John’s volunteers and combat soldiers – taught to vaccinate. But the crisis teaches us that above all we need trained medics held at readiness.

Armed Forces Reserves, the special constabulary and retained fire service offer models to pick from. I admire my colleague Alan Mak’s attempt through his private member’s bill to create a NHS reserve. I’d sign up in a heartbeat. We need to capture the recently retired and those clinicians currently in non-patient-facing roles whose skills need little updating.

Many of them tore their hair at a re-engagement process so achingly Sir Humphrey that many just gave up. Without too much drama we could have a light touch annual online check and update for those leaving frontline service so that they could quickly be drafted in when required.

NHS staff typically retire in their mid 50s with many workable years ahead. Many, and one hopes their professional and regulatory bodies – even their trade unions like the BMA that are not listed among the heroes of this crisis – would see continuing engagement as part of the duty that comes with membership of altruistic professions.

If we had had the framework and human resources to undertake proper old-style contact tracing and isolation, the sort of thing that dominated public health until antimicrobials and vaccination did for TB, we might have been able to mount the lockdown busting, intensely local early intervention seen in parts of East Asia but which we had to ditch almost before it started. Building that capacity has to be a priority in preparation for the next big one. For that you need a workforce that can be mobilised fast.

Mobilisation reserve service has bookended my parliamentary career – in Iraq in 2003 and in the pandemic Great Patriotic War. It has been a massive privilege to serve in uniform on the front line of the century’s biggest geopolitical events. The military has emerged from two starkly different engagements with its public reputation enhanced.

This time, much of the military’s work has been in communities where these days it is rarely seen, even regarded with suspicion. But the warmth of the public’s reaction to soldiers. sailors and airmen who have been truly awesome as vaccinators, porters and test site marshals has been humbling. Despite a deliberately low profile approach taken by the MoD, I suggest Operation Rescript has done more for civ-mil relations than any number of Armed Forces days.

In the breach whatever the threat, the Queen’s men and women belong to the public they serve. That sense of proprietorship is healthy in any democracy. There’s no doubt it’s been advanced during this crisis.