Back in 1958, the club I rowed for celebrated its centenary by raising money for a new boat. One member of the crew, who was studying classics, found an apt name, a Greek word which he told us meant 'Once in a hundred years'. It was a good boat and we and our successors did quite well in it. While it must have lasted a decade or two, it is now but a distant memory among those still alive who rowed in it.
I have heard this term, a once in a hundred-year event, used repeatedly by Conservative politicians when referring to the current prolonged pandemic of Covid-19, as an answer to questions about why their proposed solutions to the UK's many problems have not been applied over all the years that they have been in power. It was all because of a one in a hundred-year event, the pandemic. The implications are that it is unlikely to occur again and that it is now over; both are wrong.
In over 50 essays on Covid-19 in Scottish Review
since 4 March 2020, I have discussed the course and implications of this pandemic. It is, I think, safe to say that the virus, SARS-CoV-2 and its variants, is now endemic and likely to remain so indefinitely, something that with the aid of vaccines and sensible public health measures we are learning to live with. Though very infective, it is now generally less virulent save in the already ill or immunosuppressed. However, its high infectivity means that it continues to constitute a huge problem in the NHS, both from cross infection and from staff absence for illness or necessary isolation.
Unfortunately, while the current vaccines protect against severe infections, neither they nor the infection itself give full immunity and many NHS staff have now had two or more bouts of Covid-19.
A consequence of this is a high rate of burnout among front-line medical and nursing staff, with consequential psycho-physical symptoms. Many senior staff with essential experience are considering early retiral, something made more likely by disincentives to continue working to 65 being built into NHS pension arrangements. This means that the NHS is now under greater pressure than at any time in its history and it is hardly surprising that waiting lists are building up to the levels we saw in the early 1960s. No solution to this appears to be in the mind of either of the current candidates for Prime Minister, one of whom foolishly proposed saving billions by getting rid of public servants, of whom the greatest number must be in the NHS.
No, the pandemic was not a one in a hundred-year event: it is a current and continuing problem that will dog all future governments, and they and we had better be prepared for its consequences. It should also be remembered that pandemics occur regularly, not only among humans – currently we have monkeypox, stressing our public health system and sexual health clinics, and there is the possibility of a human influenza pandemic looming in Australia.
There are also the current pandemics of bird influenza and of fatal disease among trees, currently most noticeably ash dieback. All these have common features: spread from overcrowding with close contacts between victims and intercontinental travel facilitating transfer of newly evolved mutants often arising from contacts between different species. We know how these events happen and how to manage them, but it all costs resources and requires an attitude of preparedness. Imagining that they are only going to happen 100 years from now is not sensible.
Unfortunately, epidemics are only one of several apparently insoluble problems that our politicians face, and this applies equally to all who hope to rise to power, of whatever party. Be they Truss, Sunak, Starmer, or even Sturgeon, they need to look beyond their personal ambitions and ideologies at the next election or referendum and tell us how their accession to power will allow them to tackle the four most pressing long-term problems.
They should abandon magic thinking about a dramatic rise in industrial productivity by fiddling with tax revenues. They should stop telling tales to keep their supporters on side, like boasting to the wealthy of Tunbridge Wells (does anyone remember the satirical 'Disgusted' of that town?) that they have succeeded in transferring resources from the working classes to them. They are heard also by people who live in the real world, and we know what is happening to our shopping and energy bills and what happens to mortgages as interest rates rise.
Most people now alive in Britain have not faced a time like this before and have thus become used to expecting a resurgence of an imagined golden age of industrial-based growth and prosperity. This is what Ms Truss is promising us shortly and Mr Sunak within a few years. I am well used to hearing this magical thinking from politicians of all parties, but I am afraid my scepticism has been justified.
Climate change, epidemics, warfare and social injustice; these are the four horsemen that all politicians must consider in their strategy for the future. They are not once in a hundred-year events – rather they are inevitable and continuing consequences of human behaviour as the dominant animal species on this planet. They arise from the desires of one group to gain advantage over others, an attitude exemplified by Mr Sunak's comment in Tunbridge Wells but also by anyone who envies the good fortune of another.
If you were hoping to be Prime or First Minister, how would you confront these issues? You might be thinking of Mr Churchill's words on acceding to that post in 1940: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil and tears'. I hope that Mr Starmer is now preparing to emulate him in that respect and to follow Mr Attlee in making radical moves to repair Britain's social injustice, while remembering that this effective effort led to acceleration of climate change. Perhaps Britain is ready for another such leader, one who tells it as it is and starts us on the long path towards social justice. The energy crisis among the poorest is the opportunity for morality to displace greed from the agendas of those who aspire to lead us.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own