Observations Body Politic

Why we went over the top in the swine flu battle

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c789 (Published 10 February 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c789
  1. Nigel Hawkes, freelance journalist
  1. nigel.hawkes1{at}btinternet.com

    Once we had started to mobilise against H1N1, it was too late to turn back

    Let me reverse into this issue very carefully, wearing a tin hat. To suggest that the swine flu pandemic might have been handled differently, thereby saving many millions of pounds, is almost as rash a proposition as admitting to doubts about global warming. I am not trying to be wise after the event: I would have done nothing differently. But given the disproportion between the actual impact of the pandemic and the measures taken to combat it, some sort of postmortem examination seems to be worthwhile.

    The historian A J P Taylor argued that the first world war was unstoppable once the great powers had begun to mobilise. Huge conscript armies built up by the European powers weakened their diplomatic hand, because these armies took weeks to mobilise and lacked the flexibility to respond to small threats in an appropriately modest way. To counter an empty threat against Serbia by Austro-Hungary, Russia was forced into general mobilisation. Anything less would have left it defenceless against an opportunistic attack by Germany.

    Nor could mobilisation be quickly reversed. It depended on the railways, and, Taylor argued, railway timetables cannot be improvised. “Once started, the wagons and carriages …

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