Rather than the short sharp shock of 7/7, or the more predictable but nonetheless fast and furious arrival of the summer 2007 floods, swine flu has crept up on us slowly.
The current pandemic is primarily a health issue. Security experts in particular may well be wondering why they should be taking notice. They may dismiss the idea that there are any lessons to be learned that might inform our ability to respond to more ‘serious’ threats. Yet we have an enormous amount to learn, both from what we have seen so far and from what is to come.
As we assess the situation, we must guard against levelling criticism too freely, or expecting the impossible where the possible has been delivered efficiently. Despite the strain they have been under, GPs have coped: those who have needed Tamiflu or hospitalisation have received it. This is not to pretend, however, that everything has been perfect, and that the response has been completely faultless. It has, inevitably, been a learning process that will identify issues as it progresses, unearthing more unknown unknowns as it goes along. Emergency planners are already realising that in planning for the worst case scenario (in this instance, 750,000 dead from H5N1), we perhaps spent too little time considering the effects of the ‘not-so-bad’ scenario, particularly in terms of how the outbreak was communicated, both to the public and through the media. Perhaps more awareness of this would have enabled potentially conflicting messages – about predicted numbers of deaths, about dealing with large numbers of mild symptoms against large numbers of severe symptoms, about when and when not to call GPs and other helplines – to be headed off.
Moreover, we need to pay more attention to the terminology we use. For instance, was it well-enough understood that the ‘containment’ phase was not a time during which pandemic flu could be made to go away, or be cured, but was a holding phase, a slowing down of the spread of the infection?
Overall, however, these have been minor issues to overcome and the government has made the right moves in seeking to contain and treat current infections. There is now an opportunity to take stock and be reminded of the value of emergency planning, and the importance of testing those plans in the most realistic scenarios possible.
As with so many emergencies, the issues we need to consider relate far more to the consequence than the cause. Gaps will emerge in the planning that has been carried out to deal with pandemic flu, but they are unlikely to be specific to only this scenario. Let us ensure that they are plugged properly, while we have the time and space to do so. Next time, we may not be so lucky.
Head, Emergency Management