in Wandsworth

Don’t panic: swine flu and Wandsworth

The council recently issued ‘advice’ on swine flu.  More accurately, it did a  cut and paste of some advice already issued by the Health Protection Agency and featured it on the council website.  And this has caused some mockery and criticism – why are we issuing it when there are only five cases in the UK?

I have described myself as a sceptic on this sort of issue, but fear that’s the wrong way to describe my view.  I would not trot out the cliche that nothing happened with SARS or bird flu, for example.  But do feel that the media sometimes over-hypes the risk.  There were risks that SARS or bird flu would become pandemics, just as there are risks that swine flu will be a pandemic.  But that risk should be considered proportionately, sometimes the news media struggles with proportionate coverage.  The excellent Ben Goldacre covers this far better than I ever could on the Guardian website.

And of course the government is on the bandwagon, helped by the traditional increase in public expenditure as elections approach and the drop in advertising costs caused by the recession.  You could argue that this increases panic and that the council’s press release does exactly the same.  But it seems to me that it’s a no-win situation.  We warn of a danger and offer prevention advice, possibly averting the threat, but are criticised for the “needless” warning.  We don’t warn, something happens, and, of course, we should have done something.

So is there anything wrong in the council’s approach or the government’s advertising?  I don’t think there is.  The advertising is largely about covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze, no bad thing whether there is a potential swine flu pandemic or not.  Ordinary flu kills thousands each year and is transmitted in exactly the same way.  It reminds me of the government’s incredibly stark AIDS advertising in the 80s.  It has been criticised for over-hyping an epidemic that never materialised, but the then health minister, Norman Fowler, has commented that the fact there wasn’t an epidemic was testament to the campaign’s success.

But while these various messages have a prevention slant it also shows that authorities are thinking about the issues involved.  Wandsworth would have a key role, along with emergency service partners, in dealing with the consequences of a pandemic, and that takes preparation.  To use a very recent example the council responded remarkably well to the heavy snow in February and received some praise for its work.  But that response was no accident, but a consequence of robust contingency planning.

Only this week I was at a meeting looking at the lessons we had learned from February’s snow, what we’d been doing to implement them and discussing how we could test what we’d learned before they were needed for real.  While we coped with the snow magnificently, it does not mean there weren’t areas for improvement, and these aren’t just things that affect planning for heavy snow, but issues that can affect any event that requires an emergency response.  It doesn’t really matter if a meals-on-wheels driver can’t come to work because of snow or because they have flu; the council still has to make sure food is delivered to vulnerable people.

It’s sensible for a council to prepare, plan and offer advice.  The size of the risk may be small, but the consequences could be enormous.  So mock all you want, because while I hope the council’s emergency plans are never needed I know that if they are then Wandsworth will respond admirably to the challenges.

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