Leading article: Keep calm and carry on

Related Topics

As any pedant knows, the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster was printed in 1939 but never displayed – at least, not until 2005, when it became the latest equivalent of "You Don't Have to Be Mad to Work Here ... But It Helps". One of the reasons for its popularity may have been that it offers such a multilayered rebuke to the tendency of today's media to overreaction and panic.

The swine flu pandemic is the starkest recent example of the difficulties we have as a nation in dealing with the concept of risk. The Government, the media and the general public have all struggled to make sense of the threat that arose in April when cases of swine flu were first reported in Mexico. Partly because of the scare over Sars in China and Canada in 2003, and partly because officials had been so well-prepared for the possibility of a bird flu pandemic, public opinion was already sensitised to the possibility of a new strain of flu virus spreading quickly around the world and killing hundreds of thousands of people.

An early sense of urgency was justified, therefore. But by 3 May, this newspaper was already reporting that the outbreak, which had by then spread to 16 countries, "may not be as bad as initially feared". It was quickly established with a reasonable degree of certainty that this H1N1 strain was both highly infectious, but also unusually mild.

As with any strain of influenza, it can kill; but compare it with normal seasonal flu, which kills 6,000-8,000 during most British winters, and which killed about 21,000 in the worst recent season, that of 1999-2000. To date, the death toll from swine flu in Britain is 30, of whom only five appear to have been free of any underlying condition that contributed to their illness. And most authoritative predictions are that the incidence of the disease in this country either has peaked already or will do so in the next couple of weeks.

Of course, nothing can diminish the loss and the pain of the families of those who have died, and it may sound heartless to use words such as "mild" of a virus that can be deadly. But, for the population as a whole, a sense of perspective is supplied by comparisons, not just with seasonal flu but with other causes of death. Last year, 2,538 people were killed in road accidents and about 5,000 people died of hospital-acquired infections – although they would have had, by definition, what are now known as "underlying health issues".

Perhaps the most telling thought experiment is this: if we had not known about the existence of swine flu, would we have noticed that anything unusual was happening? Many adults have felt ill in the past two months; some might even have had swine flu. Many of us have children who have been sick and run a high temperature for a few days. Had we not heard about pandemics from the media and NHS information campaigns, we might have used words such as "flu" and "stomach bug" loosely, and carried on.

Instead, we have besieged first NHS Direct and now the dedicated National Pandemic Flu Service, mostly to ask for advice that has already been provided or to ask for antiviral drugs that we do not need.

Thus one of the more pressing public policy issues to arise from the outbreak of swine flu phobia is that of ensuring that drug companies are restrained from profiteering, as we report on page 14.

There remains, of course, the issue of the coming winter. If another wave of infections should coincide with cold weather, the number of deaths could rise significantly. Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government's chief medical officer, is planning for a worst-case scenario of 65,000 deaths. The figure has been widely reported, but it is difficult to convey its low probability, which is as important as its alarming scale.

Even in places where it is winter on the other side of the world, the death toll has been mercifully low: 165 in Argentina; 40 in Australia. There also remains the abiding risk that this virus or a bird flu virus could mutate to a more aggressive form – but that threat is no greater now than it has been for many years.

All in all, the Government has a good record of preparedness – despite predictable complaints that it has been too slow or put out "confused messages"; and despite the likely kneejerk response to our report today of priority for drug addicts. Britain has better stocks of antiviral drugs and better plans for coping with a pandemic than most other countries. In any case, the threat from this virus falls some way short of a national emergency. This is not 1939: we wish all our readers a calm and reasonably healthy summer holiday.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home