Published: 06:00, 14 February 2021
The coronavirus crisis and its lethal impact have for many brought unimaginable changes to the way we live and work.
One key question has been whether we were adequately prepared. A partial answer to that lies in a report by Kent's emergency planners more than a decade ago. Political editor Paul Francis has examined how many of its predictions have proved accurate and some of the figures behind them.
Detailed plans were drawn up which provide an insight into how the authorities would respond to a pandemic.
Those plans were the basis of a detailed 2009 report by the multi-agency team that plans for emergencies, the Kent Resilience Forum.
At the time the 44-page Pandemic Influenza Contingency Plan sparked little public interest.
But it revealed an unerringly accurate depiction of what the consequences were likely to be and the steps that would be needed to fight the pandemic.
Political editor Paul Francis examines how many of its predictions have proved accurate and some of the figures behind them.
Excess deaths: The report said Kent could see as many as 20,000 fatalities from a pandemic, referred to as excess deaths, over a 15-week period. The number could be as high as 20,434 at the top end of the scale but a far lower 1,512 at the other, depending on the numbers contracting the virus. The number of people diagnosed could range from 408, 675 to 813,350.
Assessment: We won’t know the precise figures for some time but fatalities nationally have already exceeded forecasts. There have been an estimated 4000 deaths in Kent and Medway so far.
The virus origin: Planners said “the outbreak of a previously unidentified strain of flu would almost certainly come from outside the UK: cases could begin to occur in the UK within one month of the start of the pandemic. Once in the UK, the pandemic is likely to spread to most major population centres within two weeks.”
Assessment: Although the infection took longer to become established in parts of the county, notably the more rural areas.The origin of the virus was initially said to be China but some have questioned this.
Virus waves: The report warned “flu pandemics typically tend to occur in waves. The second wave may be larger than the first. The Cabinet Office advises local planners to assume each wave will last 12 to 15 weeks.”
Assessment: True. However, this aspect of the coronavirus was downplayed by the Prime Minister after the initial lockdown period ended in 2020 and he set out the “route map” for the resumption of normal life.
Drugs: “Medical counter-measures will not solve business continuity requirements because antiviral drugs for treatment will only lessen the severity of the illness. They will neither cure it nor significantly reduce staff absence. Pandemic specific vaccines will not be available during the first wave.”
Assessment: True. The breakthrough in vaccines to a flu pandemic came in November last year following the news of the success in trials of AstraZenica vaccine. The speed with which vaccines have been developed has been one of the few positive points for the government.
Keeping informed: A communications strategy would involve slogans aimed at alerting the public to the risks and advise on how best to eliminate the chances of passing on the infection. The catchphrase “Catch it; bin it; kill it”would be the initial slogan.
Assessment: The government did not use this slogan - which was adopted during the outbreak of swine flu - opting initially for “Stay at home; protect the NHS; save lives.” Other slogans came and went, notably “the rule of six” and then “Stay alert; control the virus; save lives.”
Closing schools: The report stated “schools and childcare settings closure may be necessary, during a pandemic, either because of inadequate staffing levels or in order to reduce the spread of infection.”
Assessment: Accurate - although the issue of how long they should close for has been an argument that has dragged on for months and remains controversial.
Virtual learning: The report said that the priority for both KCC and Medway council was “to keep schools open unless it is absolutely unavoidable.”
While KCC had considered plans to set up remote learning, “there are several other more effective methods which would be introduced first.” It referred to Medway council developing “an electronic means of learning” but did not spell out what that was.
Assessment: Partly accurate. However, the idea of teaching through virtual classrooms was not, at the time, well-used or even well known. Now it is second nature to talk of zoom meetings but in 2009, it wasn't.
Self-isolation: Under the heading ‘Voluntary home isolation and quarantine’ the report stated how “symptomatic persons will be asked to stay at home or in their place of residence whilst ill. Voluntary quarantine of contacts of known cases will also be encouraged.”
Assessment: Accurate. As we now know, self-isolation has become and continues to be a central part of limiting the spread of infection.
Civil disorder: Concerns that there could be outbreaks of civil disorder were flagged up - including the possibility of the police having to deal with disorder “surrounding the distribution of antivirals.”
Assessment: As yet, the police have not had to deal with any disorder on a large scale.
Social distancing: National guidance would be followed on public health and ‘social distancing’ measures “to reduce the spread of flu during a pandemic. Hand washing and respiratory hygiene will be particularly important.”
Assessment: Although no detail, an early reference to the need for social distancing showed emergency planners had this on their radar - and it has proved a key element of the drive to mitigate against the spread of infection.