Conquering Covid19: US thinking we could learn from

Commentary by Marc LeeChairman, Cityforum

With its thoughtful and penetrating analysis of Covid19 and how to deal with it, the New York Times has recently carried two pertinent articles that could add value in the UK context as the country considers its strategies for the long term as well as immediate thinking for the Integrated Defence and Security Review that is now on the stocks.

On April 27, the President and the CEO of The American Society of Microbiology urged the establishment of a new kind of National Guard to ‘switch on’ immediately in a crisis and, in organised fashion, use the skills of the many microbiologists and of other scientists who have an understanding of the subject, but whose work in their particular areas has been halted by the 100% focus on Covid19.  When the Chief of the Defence staff spoke at the Downing Street briefing, he emphasised the role of reservists and there is surely a case for incorporating pandemic skills capability into the British military as it looks ahead.

Interestingly, the US Cityforum Advisor, Michael Steinmetz, who co-hosts with the author of this blog the annual Cityforum-NSA Cyber Security Summit in London, points to the quality of the Rhode Island National Guard and the capability and experience of its Commander Major General Christopher Callahan.  Mike Steinmetz emphasises that the General not only commands the National Guard but is also Adjutant General to the State of Rhode Island, and an expert on testing. Mike himself, was Cyber Security Advisor to Governor Raimondo.

A day later on 28 April, the New York Times published’ Rhode Island pushes aggressive testing, a move that could ease reopening’.  This article focuses on the discovery by health workers employed by the State of more cases of Covid19 than had been found anywhere else in the US, leading them to spot many infections that might have gone unreported elsewhere.  Governor Gina M Raimondo and her State Director of Health, Dr Nicole Alexander-Scott, an infectious disease expert, and advocate for health equity, had been particularly careful to deploy people with a deep knowledge of the cultures and languages of the many ethnicities in Rhode Island.  This, the New York Times, signalled as very important.  Mike Steinmetz concludes that Dr Alexander-Scott’s ethnicity, imagination and courage makes her a formidable prop to the Governor.  Rhode Island has emphasised a carefully calibrated human approach rather than putting most faith in an app and the call centre type staffing required for a more technologically based approach.

What has been done in Rhode Island could usefully be considered in the UK since, when the crisis is reduced, the people likely to remain affected are the BAME communities which are often quite isolated from the rest of the country, and do not always communicate well in English.  On 10 May, the Observer editorial asked ‘May we be relying too much on technology?’.  Apart from the 15,000 recruits required to make sure the proposed app works, do we not perhaps need more than the remaining 3,000 whose recruitment is proposed, to do the work on the ground?  The environment health officials of local councils, a valuable yet underrated resource, have the required capabilities, but should we not lay stress on bringing in more people from BAME communities?  Dame Angela Mclean raised her concern at a recent Downing Street briefing, over what may happen later to BAME people up and down the country.  Does the experience of Governor Raimondo and of Dr Nicole Alexander-Scott suggest a way of improving how we test, track and trace?

We have clearly to focus on the technology but there are certain to be vulnerable groups that will require us to be able to fan out on the ground if we are to protect them and treat them as equal members of our society.