Hampshire Chronicle column 19th March2020

Three years ago, when I was first appointed UK Public Health Minister, I was taken to Porton Down; the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory for which I had Ministerial responsibility.

There are lots of myths about the PHE facility near Salisbury but it’s certainly true some of the most important work you’ve never heard of takes place there. Part of my visit was a briefing, deep underground, where some of the most dangerous viruses known to man are kept securely and where plans are nurtured should the UK be subject to an infectious disease outbreak or hostile attack.

It was, as you might imagine, fascinating but it all seemed rather ‘cold war’ and while I was reassured at the expertise, I remember hoping my hosts were wrong when they said it was only a matter of time before those plans were needed.

Now of course, thanks to what is believed to be practices at a seafood market in China (and the world must return to that), their prediction has come true.

I have done a lot of media recently and I have largely spoken in support of our strategy. It was right to try and contain – the opposite would be to not contain – and it is right now to seek to flatten the curve to help our NHS cope with large numbers of people becoming unwell.

This week’s measures - around self-isolating of entire families, social isolation and ‘shielding’ of certain groups – are correct too. Many will not like it but we’re trusting the reasonable instincts of the British public to act in the interests of the common good.

And it’s heart-breaking to say, but it’s also right to advise people not to go to pubs, restaurants and theatres at this time.

I’ve spoken to many local business owners in recent days and, even though it’s clearly to their detriment, many see the rationale. It was humbling to hear. Like me however, many wish the Government would TELL them to close because of the realities of insurance policies.

So the public health response is the right response because it follows the evidence and the UK has one of the best imbedded science / governmental systems in the world.

Of course there are members of the scientific community who take a different view on the same modelling – and are pounced on by a restless, unimaginative broadcast media - but the S.A.G.E group which informs our CMO and Chief Scientific Advisor is rightly a place for robust argument and stress tested theories.

The modelling has been published and it should be in an open democracy but we should all remember, while we have views, those in charge have to make decisions and that’s not easy. There may be a plan but there is no hard and fast rule book here. That may be irritating but it happens to be true.

My message to Ministers continues to be, we’re pursuing a radical public health strategy but to ensure we’ve an economy worth inheriting, we must see an equally radical liberal interventionalist economic response. To do “whatever it takes” as is the fashion.

Finally, and while I appreciate events are moving very fast, I am in constant contact with local headteachers so I can support and represent them to Ministers.

As I said in the House on Monday, they want to keep schools open but an increasing number of colleagues off sick will probably force the issue sooner than we’d like. I also called for Ofsted to pause its work and on Tuesday they did just that. We fight on.

More and the local ‘big society’ response www.stevebrine.com/covid19  

Steve Brine MP