In early January, as China responded with increasing urgency to the spread within Hubei province of a novel coronavirus, I called my oldest friend, Professor Michael Barrett, an infection biologist at Glasgow University and contributor to the New Statesman. I wanted his view on whether the disease would spread throughout the world. We have known each other since we were at the same primary school in the 1970s and, together with another old friend, we were scheduled to visit Sri Lanka in March to watch some Test cricket. Even then he did not think the trip would be possible. How bad could this be, I asked?
As a world-class scientist, Barrett is coolly sceptical and allows evidence to inform his judgements. He is not easily alarmed. But on this occasion, he was alarmed not least because the Chinese were so comprehensively alarmed, and they had the experience of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic of 2002-04 to inform and guide their response: the novel coronavirus appeared to be less lethal than Sars but to be spreading more rapidly.
Much of what Barrett predicted, either in conversations with me or in his New Statesman articles, has since happened: the rapid spread of the virus outside China; its lethal threat to older people suffering from comorbidities; the introduction of Wuhan-style lockdowns and quarantines and the enforced closure of schools in cities and countries around the world; the terrifying economic consequences. He was of the view that the UK government should have closed schools earlier and locked down society sooner, and in March he advised me not to attend the Cheltenham racing festival. That the festival went ahead seemed reckless at the time; it now looks like a monumental mistake and an expression of the government’s confusion and mixed messaging.
Nor is Professor Barrett hopeful that a satisfactory antibody test to determine whether someone has had Covid-19 – the present trial tests are producing too many false positives and false negatives – or a vaccine against it will be available soon. As with common colds, at least 30 per cent of which are caused by coronaviruses, it’s possible that we may never have a vaccine.
In recent weeks Barrett has been working with a team in Glasgow to set up one of the three new so-called Lighthouse laboratories (the others are in Cheshire and Milton Keynes). The aspiration is that these labs will enable mass testing for coronavirus so that the government might reach its target of 100,000 Covid-19 diagnostic tests per day. The Lighthouse at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow is heavily reliant on a volunteer workforce of lab scientists of all levels – thousands have put their names forward – and even the armed forces are playing a role to enforce supply chains. “My students occasionally ask what real-world benefits accrue from them learning to pipette tiny volumes of liquid, or precision weigh chemicals before analysing data to the n’th degree,” Barrett said.
“It is exactly these arcane, specialised skills that we now need to help contain the virus. Our best people should be learning science and rewarded for doing so.” Enhanced respect and rewards for scientists and disinterested scientific research: we can hope that the world might be arranged differently after coronavirus.
Before Boris Johnson gave a national televised address on 23 March, I wrote that he was struggling to find an appropriate tone of voice to speak to and for the nation. Since then he has locked down the country and almost died from Covid-19. The video message he gave on 12 April after being released from St Thomas’s was surely his best speech ever: the glibness and bluster had been replaced by a hard-earned sincerity. Wan and exhausted and with his voice weakened by serious illness, Johnson described the NHS as “our greatest national asset” and said that it “was powered by love”. We have not heard from him since.
Will Johnson become a better person because of his near-death experience? Already evidence about his government’s initial careless response to the crisis is hardening; on 19 April, the Sunday Times’s Insight team published a long and devastating investigation into what it described as the “38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster”. Johnson did not emerge well from it.
In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure the Duke offers this stoic advice to Claudio, a sinner who seeks redemption but who is led to believe that he faces execution: “Be absolute for death; either death or life/Shall thereby be the sweeter.” In other words, psychological preparedness is all: by forcing Claudio to confront the absolute end of his life, the Duke (who intends to spare Claudio) hopes that he may appreciate what it really means to live. After listening to the Duke, Claudio replies: “To sue to live, I find I seek to die/And, seeking death, find life: let it come on.”
Boris Johnson did not seek death of course but he now has another chance at life. In February, Professor Barrett said to me that we will all soon know someone who has had the virus and then someone who has died from it. From my own experience, this was prescient – because New Statesman colleagues and several of my cousins have likely had Covid-19, and just last week the father of one of my closest friends died from it. But with the virus killing so many around the world, can we now see more clearly what it means not just to live but to live well and with renewed purpose?
This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb