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  • David Mathews

A Ventilator of One’s Own

‘Wouldn’t it be great if we all had our own ventilators?’ I suggested this to Arthur as we Skyped at the end of the day. We were trying to comprehend the world, our customary way of cheering each other up. In happier times we would be à table or in some convivial hostelry.

Arthur was aghast. ‘Dear boy, no. You’re falling into the same trap as Johnson and the others.’

But we needed loads, I insisted.

‘Of course we do, but having enough ventilators should not be the goal.’

Because …?

‘On ventilators people still die. Look at Italy. Think of it this way; would having half a million ventilators and 499,999 people in ICU be success?’

Only mathematically. In other ways not a good look for a government.

‘You see, it worries me that the goal I hear expressed again and again seems to be to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed by patients needing hospital care.’

Necessary, but not sufficient, yes? The not overwhelming I meant.

‘Exactly. A more responsible ambition would be would be to minimise the number of ventilators and hospitalisations needed, stopping as many people as possible becoming ill in the first place. But they’ve missed the boat on that one. Once we got past penny numbers, they stopped the test and trace strategy In favour of that wretched herd immunity digression. Sorry, too much metaphor, but you get my point, old boy.’

That and the fact that no-one thought to up the testing capacity in the first place, so now we’re way off the pace, and the poor bloody infantry of the NHS are scared witless because, in the world’s fifth largest economy, even they can’t get tested.

Arthur nodded glumly, and we were both silent for a while.

‘Apropos your poor bloody infantry, analogies with the war seem to be in favour at the moment,’ Arthur said. ‘All that nonsense about the blitz spirit from people who weren’t even born then. But if they must have a parallel, it’s this: bleating about ambulances to carry away the casualties rather than Spitfires to shoot down the bombers.’

I reminded Arthur that it was the job of the RAF’s Hurricanes to do that, and that the Spitfires’ role was to shoot down the fighters protecting the bombers.

My old chum chided me for being pedantic. There ensued a longer silence than before.

Eventually I risked mentioning that the PM, surely, had announced in yesterday’s press conference that in 12 weeks we would ‘turn the tide’?

Sir Arthur hummed to himself as he poured a glass of an excellent Madeira I recognised, not the one I had once given him, but from a case presented to him on his retirement by the committee he chaired at the Royal College of Psychiatry. Arthur is apt to take a glass when he is feeling pleased with himself for having got under the skin of a problem.

‘A classic Johnsonian upbeat phrase,’ he said. ‘The kind that's played well up till now. The kind that got him to power. Bugger all to do with reality, of course, all to do with getting through the moment. And he tries to add conviction with that man-of-action gesture he has adopted, you know, where he jerks his hands forward for emphasis, fingers curled, thumb on top. When challenged – by The Times, for heaven’s sake – he couldn’t explain what he meant, not a clue. And tellingly, the two chief officers, medical and scientific, did not jump in to rescue him. How could they? Johnson had only at that second made it up, both the tide and the timescale. And why? Because when asked how long all this would last, he was temperamentally incapable of admitting that he didn’t have a clue. Pure Johnson.’

I treated myself to a whisky, and Arthur and I ended on a happy note, picturing the scurrying in Number 10 as Cumming’s people sought a post hoc validation for the PM’s new fiction. Science led? Chin chin.

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