Bottles of antibiotics line a shelf at a Publix Supermarket pharmacy August 7, 2007 in Miami, Florida. Photo: Getty Images
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What next, when the drugs won’t work?

The government has made progress on the urgent crisis of antimicrobial resistance, but sustained public pressure is still needed, says Zac Goldsmith.

On accepting his part of the Nobel Prize for the discovery and isolation of penicillin, Alexander Fleming warned: “There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.” From the moment these miracle drugs became available, there has never been any doubt about the link between misuse of antibiotics and resistance to them. But despite that, we have spectacularly failed to heed Fleming’s warning, and as a consequence we now face the prospect of losing modern medicine as we know it.

Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, has described an “apocalyptic scenario”. She has warned of a return within 20 years to a “19th-century environment”, in which routine operations carry a deadly risk. The World Health Organisation has said that we are hurtling towards a “post-antibiotic era”. 

In 2006 there were just five cases where patients failed to respond to even so-called last-resort antibiotics, but last year that number was 600. Clearly we must hope new antibiotics are developed, but there is no escaping that the principal cause of this crisis is our industrial-scale misuse of the antibiotics we already have. Even in this age of irresponsibility, it is hard to imagine anything more reckless. 

Now that the medical establishment has sounded the alarm, you’d expect this, perhaps the greatest single threat to our health, to top the political agenda and dominate the tabloid news. If only. 

In fairness, the Department of Health has issued stronger guidance to GPs and hospitals. But very little is being done to limit misuse of antibiotics in agriculture. In many nations globally, the use of antibiotics for animals exceeds the amount used for human medicine. A 2012 report produced by the Soil Association suggests that the overall use of antibiotics per animal on UK farms increased by 18 per cent between 2000 and 2010. The problem is even worse in the US, where non-government studies have estimated that upwards of 70 per cent of antibiotics are used on farms.

At the same time, we are fast losing our traditional antibiotics to resistance: penicillin for staphylococcal wound infections, ampicillin for infections of the urinary tract and ciprofloxacin for treating gonorrhoea. We are increasingly having to use reserve antibiotics and, worryingly, seeing the spread of resistance to them as well. 

The link between misuse and resistance is not disputed, and so we have to ask why emergency action isn’t being taken. There is no philosophical or ideological reason why any of the mainstream parties should be reluctant to engage. After all, the solutions involve responsible use of what drugs we have, and the promotion of science. 

So why aren’t the newspapers hounding ministers for action? Why aren’t MPs being bombarded by angry letters? In short, what makes this crisis different, and less important to policymakers than the Aids crisis of the 1980s, which successfully galvanised drug companies and the authorities? 

One answer perhaps is that there is less focus – there is no single infection to fight, no single drug to be found. But more significant, I believe, is the influence of vested interests. If intensive farms have grown dependent on antibiotics, then their removal would require significant changes. Not surprisingly, the resistance put up by agribusiness lobby groups is immense, and I believe that explains a lack of urgency in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

It would be wrong to suggest there has been no progress. Last year I initiated a debate in parliament on the matter and, in response, a UK health minister told me: “Routine prophylactic use of antibiotics in both humans and animals is not acceptable practice. I am writing to Defra to ensure that existing veterinary guidance makes that very clear.”

Then last year, the Cabinet Office confirmed it would look at resistance as a national security issue. The government subsequently announced a “Five-Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy”, which was published by the Department of Health and Defra. The Prime Minister has also openly described the issue as “an extremely serious problem”.

However, we still lag far behind many other countries in terms of concrete steps. The Netherlands, for instance, has endorsed a 50 per cent reduction in livestock antibiotic sales from 2009 levels by 2014. The bottom line is that governments here and elsewhere must prioritise human health over short-term vested interests, and that, I believe, will be achieved only with sustained and intense public pressure. That will happen, but we must hope it does so before a crisis sets in.

Zac Goldsmith is the MP for Richmond Park (Conservative)

Zac Goldsmith is the Conservative MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle