Alistair Burt is a foreign affairs consultant and former Foreign Office Minister.
It’s not just an exit strategy we need, it’s a re-entry one as well.
On Wednesday Theresa May asked the key question about exit strategy from the Coronavirus pandemic, a question to which there is no present answer, though the preparation has to start now.
There is, however, another question, and that is how to prepare for the next crisis of similar, or, depressingly, greater impact.
A couple of years ago, with ministerial responsibility for Global Health at DFID, I chaired a meeting discussing our support for the emerging Ebola crisis, and asked how many public health threat signals did the World Health Organisation (WHO) pick up on a regular basis?
I was astonished to be told about 7,000 a month, of which 0.5 per cent resulted in a formal risk assessment.
In 2018 there were 481 new public health events – including Ebola, and plague – in 141 different countries. A prescient WHO report that year said “What disease will emerge next or where is not known. The only certainty is that novel pathogens will emerge in some of the worlds most vulnerable countries and regions”.
Like the rest of us, I leave the scientists and health experts to grapple with the medical preparations for this, but politics here in the UK has to prepare too. What are the early lessons we should be building in?
Economics is an early example. What the country thought of as Tory economics is plainly different this week to last week, and indeed the last few decades. A new economics will emerge, which must take into account not just where people were economically when the Coronavirus crisis began, but how they got where they were.
Some of this analysis may be uncomfortable. I foresee some challenges in this for all governments, especially those which have been in power for some time, on both the right and the left. Some rule books are going to be torn up.
Conservatives here will have to review their perceived war with the State. In times of crisis we are as quick, and as sincere, as any to praise emergency services of all kinds, but away from this some Conservative rhetoric over a lengthy period has always been more questionable.
Relentlessly pursuing an economic model of ‘small state’, ‘rolling back’ what we have perceived as an overreaching state has slipped too easily into rhetoric about ‘faceless bureaucrats’,’red tape’ and ‘the blob’, attitudes which those working in the public sector have picked up over the years, leading to cynicism towards Conservative administrations, which in turn makes sensible reform of public services inevitably a zero-sum tug of war.
The lengthy and deeply painful junior doctors dispute, with ferocious hostility between a thoughtful and well meaning Jeremy Hunt, devoted to the NHS to the same degree as wonderfully committed doctors themselves (transparency note: I am the son and brother of NHS doctors) was such a casualty.
What appears to be the current war between a new government and the civil service, a weary echo both of 1979 and Blair’s new government of 1997, is another case in point, as the targets of ideological invective from the Right are the very behind the scenes people grappling in Whitehall Departments right now to co-ordinate local government, education and security responses to the crisis.
Conservatives will have to re-engage with multilateralism too, and distance themselves even further from a dangerous nationalism re-emerging worldwide.
There is a distinction between the patriotism we all share, and a too often belligerent ‘my country First’, nationalism which withers when an external crisis emerges. Or it should do. But it does not.
Even as I write I know states are competing massively, and who knows with what tactics, to secure scarce and vital medical resources, ventilators, masks and protective clothing, for themselves. There is no easy answer to this.
Who would not want their country to do its utmost to ensure such goods? But one states success will mean more deaths elsewhere.
How will this be resolved next time, if the world continues to be led by those who think a beanie hat with a nationalistic slogan is the future, and are prepared to pay for exclusivity of a vaccine?
We will need a better attitude to multilateralism from Conservatives, not seeing, as the US is relentlessly doing, international bodies as determined to undermine them, and as China and Russia view the UN Security Council, making its peacemaking efforts almost nul and void, and as an element in the Brexit debate here saw everything Brussels did as an attack on the UK which could now lead to the unfortunate ending of vital health, cultural and safety relationships for fear of lost sovereignty – just judge things on their merits.
Forget the ideology and accept that in some areas working together, even if we do not agree with every decision, means better outcomes for all.
On the other side of the ideological coin, those who see the state as the answer to everything will need to take into account that a virus shines a merciless spotlight on regimes of all kinds; a state without controls will disregard its people for its principles, as the inevitable analysis of what has happened since the outbreak of this crisis will demonstrate.
The building of sensible partnerships in healthy states between public and private will mean a ‘levelling’ of ideology, with admissions for all.
A re-entry strategy is needed, here and worldwide, and there is no reason why the UK should not take a global lead on this, and we should start now. We have the technology, the people, the administration and, I hope, a far sighted government.
This virus is probably not “the big one”. But another is coming, as the WHO predicted. Since 1970 it tells us that some 1500 new pathogens have been discovered.
They will not all have the Coronavirus mortality rate of three per cent; that of Ebola is about 50 per cent. We need to be ready domestically and abroad, not least in those states whose health systems are woefully short of the ability to deal with tragedy like ours, from where a new virus can emerge, and to which our UKAid effort needs to remain dedicated.
As the virus has shown, it knows no politics, nor geographic boundaries. Global Health Security, and the political drive to support it, can emerge strengthened from all this. A hospital and path lab in Wuhan, or the Congo, or Tehran is now local to me also.