This blog is by Peter Chowney, former Labour leader of Hastings Council, resident of Maze Hill, St Leonards on Sea, UK, and councillor for Tressell ward on Hastings Council. It serves no particular purpose, beyond entertainment, debate and constructive comment. You need to be registered and logged in to comment, but if you do, please make sure it is constructive! Click on the post title to comment.
The world’s media have gone into excited overdrive over the last couple of days with the announcement that US drug company Pfizer has developed an effective vaccine against Covid-19. Should we be celebrating? Or is our desperation for a vaccine and a ‘return to normal’ clouding our collective judgement?
The word ‘vaccination’ comes from ‘vacca’, Latin for cow. It’s a term derived by English scientist Edward Jenner. In the eighteenth century, it had already been observed that milkmaids rarely caught smallpox. They did however get a mild illness after milking cows infected with cowpox, causing skin blisters but no serious or lasting symptoms. Jenner took pus from the blisters of Sarah Nelmes, who caught the disease from a cow named Blossom. He then scraped the pus into the skin of eight-year-old James Phipps, the son of Jenner’s gardener. The boy developed mild symptoms, but nothing serious. He then exposed the boy to several smallpox patients, but the boy seemed to be protected. Bearing in mind that smallpox is an extremely virulent disease with a death rate of 30%, Jenner’s ethics were to say the least questionable, and a reflection of class politics of the time. But he went on to vaccinate around 30 other people (all, we presume, servants or the offspring of servants) with the same result: apparent immunity from smallpox. We now know that cowpox is caused by a virus that is in effect a much less virulent form of the smallpox virus, which has the same proteins on its protective coating as smallpox, and so stimulates the production of antibodies that are effective against smallpox. And so the principle of vaccination to create immunity was established.
Since then, this basic principle developed by Jenner has been used to create many effective vaccines, saving millions of lives, and virtually eliminating deaths from childhood killers such as polio, whooping cough, and TB, at least in developed countries. To make these conventional vaccines, we take bits of dead or attenuated (ie nearly dead) virus and inject it into an animal, provoking the animal to produce antibodies to the protein components of the virus, otherwise known as viral antigens. When the animal is infected with the live virus, it already has high levels of antibodies that can attack and neutralise the virus before it results in a serious infection.
The Covid-19 vaccine that Pfizer has developed is a m-RNA vaccine. That’s a relatively new type of vaccine. Although other m-RNA vaccines have been developed against other viruses, they’re not yet in general use. These vaccines work differently from conventional vaccines. Rather than injecting bits of virus into an animal, we borrow a trick from the virus itself and recruit the animal’s cellular machinery to make the viral proteins in the same way that the virus would. This is done by using messenger RNA (m-RNA), a molecule that plays an important function in our cells. Our m-RNA copies the genetic code on the DNA in our cell’s nucleus, and takes it to ribosomes in our cell’s cytoplasm – that is, the bit of the cell outside the nucleus. These ribosomes are protein factories, and make proteins from amino acids floating around in the cell. The order these amino acids are joined together to make a specific protein is determined by the genetic code carried to the ribosome by the m-RNA molecules. These new m-RNA vaccines work by creating completely synthetic m-RNA that gets into the animal’s cells, and programmes the ribosomes to make bits of viral protein. In the case of this new Pfizer vaccine, they make the spike proteins that form the ‘halo’ around the virus. These spike proteins are quickly recognised by white blood cells as ‘foreign’, provoking them to make antibodies that will also recognise and attack the same protein on actual Covid-19 if and when you’re infected.
It’s brilliantly ingenious, and represents a level of bioengineering that could only have been dreamed of when I was studying microbiology. It’s also easier and quicker to produce the vaccine, because the m-RNA is entirely synthetic, and doesn’t require large quantities of Covid-19 to be grown in cell cultures and broken up or attenuated as in a conventional vaccine. And there’s no chance of Covid-19 infection from the vaccine, as no actual virus is involved in the process of creating immunity.
So what’s not to like about this? Well, nothing – if it works. However, it’s worth looking at the figures behind the Pfizer trials for the vaccine. The large-scale trial involved 45,000 people, half of whom received the trial vaccine, and half of whom received a placebo (probably a vaccine to a different virus). However, in total, across both groups, only 94 cases of Covid-19 were detected. True, 90 percent of these were in the control group and only ten percent in the vaccinated group, but those are very low numbers to be statistically meaningful. To put it bluntly, they’re not. And of course, we’ve no idea how long immunity conferred by the vaccine will last, the trial simply hasn’t gone on long enough to make any judgements on that. It is encouraging though that from the entire trial, no significant adverse reactions to the vaccine were noticed, as you would hope for a m-RNA vaccine.
This very low infection rate is a little odd. The trials were carried out across several countries, different ethnic groups, and different ages. Even in the control group, only 0.4% were infected. That’s low, when you consider that at the time of writing this, more than double that percentage of the UK population are infected, according to estimates from the Imperial College ZOE study. This could be because people who volunteered for the vaccine trials are more aware of the virus, and are more cautious about protecting themselves from it. Just because you’re in the trial, you’re not going to be enthusiastic about catching the virus, particularly as there’s a 50-50 chance you were injected with a placebo.
These very small numbers mean it’s impossible to make any judgements about how effective the vaccine is at protecting people in different age groups, different ethnic backgrounds, or even between men and women – the numbers are just too small. So while the results are promising, the numbers at this stage can’t possibly reveal for certain whether the vaccine really will be 90% effective as Pfizer have claimed, nor which groups it will protect effectively. Not unexpectedly, Pfizer’s share prices shot up with the vaccine announcement, but have since dropped back significantly, possibly as investors realise what the trial ‘success’ figures actually mean.
There are practical problems with the Pfizer vaccine however. It has to be stored at -80 degrees, within a couple of days of its use. To use it on a large scale would require significant investment in specialist ‘ultra low freezers’ and ‘cold chain’ facilities needed to store and transport it – domestic and industrial deep freezers usually operate down to only -20 degrees. Healthcare providers in some countries might prefer to wait a little longer for a reliable vaccine that doesn’t require this big additional infrastructure investment. Other vaccines, such as the one being developed by Oxford University, can be stored at room temperature, and are close to being released for general use. The Oxford vaccine is a conventional vaccine, deriving immunity from a chimpanzee virus similar to Covid-19, so not unlike the very first smallpox vaccine developed by Edward Jenner. Trials of this vaccine have indicated that it is effective in older people.
It’s also worth looking at Pfizer as a company, and their track record. Pfizer are a huge multinational, the epitome of ‘big pharma’. They are a major employer of political lobbyists. Last year, they spent $11,000,000 on lobbying in the US, and $25,000,000 back in 2010. Much of their lobbying has been around health care reform, arguably as ‘good guys’ promoting universal free healthcare and supporting Obamacare. But of course, that’s coupled with making sure that drug prices aren’t capped. Pfizer make no secret that their lobbying is out of self-interest. Their own website says that they employ lobbyists in ‘the interests of our company, shareholders, employees, and other stakeholders’. No mention of any public interest, but then this is a US multinational we’re talking about, and this is how capitalism works. Some of their lobbying has been a bit more questionable, however. According to US State Department cables released on Wikileaks, Pfizer ‘lobbied against New Zealand getting a free trade deal with the US because it objected to New Zealand’s restrictive drug-buying rules and tried to get rid of New Zealand’s health minister Helen Clark’. So they’re apparently not above interfering in the democratic procedures of other countries to serve their own interests.
What we’re looking at here with the roll-out of this vaccine is, in effect, an extension of the vaccine trial on a scale big enough to get meaningful data. It’s just that Pfizer are now expecting governments to pay them to participate. Would I get vaccinated? Yes, I would. It seems unlikely that a m-RNA vaccine could be harmful, and there’s a good chance it will offer protection from Covid-19. But I’d continue to be cautious and avoid any infection risk, until a lot more data has been gathered.
Call me a cynical old socialist, but I would tend to have more faith in the Oxford University trial. Not because it’s British, nor because the trial size is any bigger (it isn’t). It’s just that if it’s led by an academic institution it’s more likely to be driven by interests shaped around the public good, rather than huge profits for American multinationals. And it won’t require the cold chain infrastructure.
But overall, all this is still good news. Whether you believe in the power of profit-driven capitalism to come up with a way out of the Covid crisis or the power of collective human endeavour for the public good, it seems we are now very close to an effective vaccine. It’s just that I don’t believe we can say for certain that we’re there yet.
As the second wave of Covid-19 infections breaks tumultuously over our heads, it’s disappointing that there’s still so much misinformation out there, and some of it is originating from places where it really didn’t ought to. But that’s just one factor in a complicated mosaic that has led us to this dismal outcome.
On a recent Radio 5 Live Sunday Breakfast programme, presenter Rick Edwards berated one of his guests for sounding hopeful about a vaccine. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘The common cold and flu are caused by coronaviruses, and we haven’t got an effective vaccine against them, have we?’. The guest didn’t disagree with this statement, but then he was a physics teacher, so might not have been up on viruses.
Let’s get this straight. Firstly, flu isn’t caused by a coronavirus. It’s caused by a flu virus. Influenza viruses are a completely separate group of viruses. Their genetic material is made from DNA, not RNA as in coronaviruses. They look quite different, in that they don’t have the spiky ‘halo’ that coronaviruses have. In fact, they’re more different from coronaviruses than Rick Edwards is from a jellyfish. Not specifically the misinformed Mr Edwards, that applies to all of us.
There are many flu viruses, which differ mostly according to the structure of the protein coat that encloses their genetic material. That’s the bit that provokes an immune reaction when we get an infection, and is also the bit that can be used to promote the production of antibodies when we’re vaccinated. Flu vaccines are very effective. But they’re only effective at preventing one type of flu virus infection. So each year, epidemiologists have to try to work out which varieties of flu virus will turn up this season, and vaccinate against those. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t, which is why flu vaccine cocktails don’t always work.
It is true that the common cold is caused by coronaviruses. Sometimes. The common cold isn’t a specific disease as such, it’s a set of symptoms that’s caused by a number of relatively mild respiratory viruses, some of which are coronaviruses. It’s true that over the years there has been considerable research on the common cold and developing a vaccine, but the difficulty of doing that has never really justified the huge investment that would be necessary for a relatively minor ailment.
There has also been a lot of coverage given to a study by Imperial College on whether immunity to Covid-19 is permanent. It found that antibody levels did tail off a few months after exposure, particularly in older people. This led to some tabloid papers claiming that a vaccine wouldn’t work and we’re all consequently doomed. But this ‘tailing off’ of antibody levels isn’t all that unexpected. For some vaccinations, booster shots are needed. This is true for polio, diphtheria and tetanus, for example. Sometimes, these boosters are best given soon after the initial vaccination, at the point when the antibody level reaches its peaks. For others, it’s a repeat vaccination, perhaps once every ten years. So it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Covid vaccine needed a booster shot, maybe even once a year. We can manage that for cats, for feline HIV and leukaemia, so we ought to be able to manage it for humans. But on top of all that, out of the millions of Covid-19 infections across the world, there are still only a tiny handful that have been proven to be second infections. As we approach the first anniversary of this virus jumping species to humans, that implies a practical immunity of a year, at least.
Meanwhile, the second wave of Covid-19 infections has comprehensively arrived, catching the government seemingly unawares, with Boris Johnson urging everyone to go back to work, then almost immediately telling us all to work from home again. The second wave shouldn’t have been such a surprise – I predicted it back in my post in June, as did many others. The government’s flagship ‘world beating’ test and trace system has been an utter failure, tracing ever decreasing percentages of contacts. Latest official figures show only about a half of those identified as having been exposed to infection are successfully traced, although BBC Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’ programme (one that can be relied on for facts) made the point that even this is misleading, as it includes care homes, where all contacts can be traced as they have the contact details of everyone who enters the premises. Take those out from the figures, and the numbers traced drop by more than ten percent. And then of course, although it’s a legal obligation to self-isolate if traced, many aren’t doing that. A recent survey showed only around 20 percent of those told to isolate actually did fully self-isolate, for the full period. Take all that together, and it’s not hard to see how the system has failed. But even the best test and trace system couldn’t cope with the level of infections we have now. It was only ever intended to identify one-off infection events where the overall number of cases is low.
From the point when lockdown was eased, and the ‘stay at home’ message was diluted with ever more complex laws, rules, and guidance, coupled with even more confusing regional variations, the path was unavoidable. A labyrinth leading to an inevitable second wave had been created.
Now, as the number of cases, hospital admissions and deaths rise with increasing rapidity, the Prime Minister is making a rabbit in the headlights look calm and in control. On one side he has far-right Tory MPs arguing that a few tens of thousands of deaths are acceptable if it protects the economy and keeps taxes on the rich down. On the other, he has the more reasonable Tory MPs who believe saving lives should be a priority, backed up by every strand of scientific advice that tells him he’s not doing anywhere near enough to protect people’s lives and the NHS. It is dispiriting though that the Labour leadership has not exactly been a beacon of hope and decisiveness through all this. After months of supporting the government, Keir Starmer did eventually take a different line and speak in favour of a national lockdown, at least as a ‘circuit breaker’. But he hasn’t sustained the consistent and strong voice that we need to be raised in support of an alternative plan.
This should be a no-brainer. Apart from anything else, there’s a big difference between the rules that govern the economy and the rules that govern virus transmission and reproduction. The economy is an entirely human construct and has been with us for a few hundred years. Viruses are natural, and have been around for over three billion years. There are a lot more options to change the rules that govern the economy than there are to change the rules that govern viruses.
Because of confusing rules, bad decisions, over-optimism, misinformation and a failure of leadership, we now find ourselves heading back to where we were at the Covid peak in April. As a full lockdown is imposed across the rest of Europe, it seems inevitable that it will come here too. We need another full lockdown, with adequate compensation for businesses and individuals affected.
But once again, it will be too late, and will have to stay in place for a lot longer than would have been necessary if the Prime Minister had summoned the courage to act sooner and more decisively. Next year, we’ll have a vaccine. That will stop the virus, or at least substantially diminish it, even if it does need a booster – thanks to scientists, not Tory politicians. From then on, life will get back to normal, albeit a new normal. But it’s a shocking fact that when all this is over, government mishandling of the pandemic in the UK will have led to many thousands of avoidable Covid deaths. It’s an episode in our history that will be remembered for centuries, but not with any celebration of success.
A shorter version of this post appears on the Sussex Bylines news website
Earlier this month, the government published ‘Planning for the Future’, a consultation White Paper on the future of the planning system, promising the biggest shake up since 1948 with a ‘fast track for beauty’ through the planning system. The proposals were immediately criticised by many, with the Royal Institute of British Architects branding them as ‘disgraceful’, and the Royal Town Planning Institute describing the White Paper as a ‘serious error’. So what exactly is proposed in the White Paper and how’s it different from the current planning system?
Planning decisions are made by district and unitary councils, apart from a few decisions on, for example, mineral extraction, waste disposal and schools that are made by county councils. There are two parts to the way these councils use planning controls to shape their area: the Local Plan, and ‘development control’. The Local Plan is by far the most important part, as this identifies land across the local authority that’s suitable for different types of development, as well as protected land where development won’t normally be permitted. It also includes a set of local policies that can include design standards, housing density, height restrictions, provision of affordable housing, environmental requirements, and even details such as the design of shopfronts and windows, particularly in defined ‘conservation areas’. The process for producing these plans is slow, expensive and cumbersome. It’s also constrained by national government policies through the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
Producing the Local Plan involves a lengthy public consultation process and thousands of pages of supporting evidence, mostly commissioned from private consultants. Several drafts are produced before the plan is submitted to a government planning inspector. The inspector then conducts an ‘examination in public’, where objectors can present their case to the inspector. Before the council adopts the plan, the inspector has to declare the plan ‘sound’. All this take several years.
Once this plan is adopted, it’s used to judge whether a planning application can be approved. This is the ‘development control’ part. If an application complies with the Local Plan, then it will be recommended for approval. The number of objections makes no difference, and can’t be taken into account in considering a planning application. It must be decided purely on whether it complies with the Local Plan, and national policies in the NPPF. This approval is usually given by planning officers, who will refer the application to the Planning Committee where there are a lot of objections.
It is true that local plans are not ‘set in stone’ – planning committees are free to make whatever decision they want. However, if they refuse an application that conforms with their plan, they risk the applicant making an appeal to a planning inspector, where the council’s decision will almost certainly be overturned and permission granted. In such cases, the council usually has to pay the applicant’s costs, potentially tens of thousands of pounds. So as a general rule, planning committees won’t turn down applications that conform with their Local Plan policies, regardless of the number of objections.
That’s how the system works at the moment. So what’s new in the White Paper?
The main proposals in the White Paper are:
- Local Plans would divide the local authority
area into four zones:
- Growth areas, where planning permission is automatically granted by the council where a development proposal conforms with local plan policies, without the need for a formal planning application;
- Renewal areas, where some types of development will be dealt with as above, but other development would still need a full application;
- Protected areas, where all development would still require a full planning application. These protected areas would include Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), National Parks and green belt, as well as locally-defined green spaces;
- Local Plan policies will be different, with zone and site-specific ‘rules’, rather than general policies, and the plan-making process simplified with a statutory time limit of 30 months for plan-making;
- Public engagement in producing the Local Plan will be increased, but the opportunity to object to individual planning applications will be reduced;
- There will be stricter targets for the numbers of new homes to be built in each council area, with more severe penalties for not achieving these targets;
- The requirement for developers to provide social and ‘affordable’ housing will end, to be replaced with an off-site financial contribution (although this could be met ‘in kind’ by building social and affordable housing as part of the development);
- Ensure new developments limit climate change, benefit the environment, and enhance the ‘beauty’ of local areas;
- Make councils pay back planning fees where an appeal to a planning decision is successful.
The intention of these proposals is to place more emphasis on making a local plan, and less on individual applications. In some ways, this makes the system clearer and more honest. Local people think that if they object to a planning application it will be more likely to be turned down – but that has never been the case, it’s compliance with the Local Plan that counts. Making councils pay back fees if they lose an appeal means turning down applications that comply with the local plan is even less likely.
The idea of the three ‘zones’ in local plans is interesting, although more detail needs to be revealed about how this would work. Presumably, councils won’t be able to simply declare the entire council area a ‘protected’ zone and carry on as before. The automatic designation of green belt, national parks and AONBs as ‘protected’ is perhaps not surprising, as these areas are almost entirely represented by Tory MPs. But in Sussex, this means a lot of housing development will be squeezed into a relatively small area, as National Parks and AONBs cover over two thirds of the two counties.
There’s a big emphasis on building homes, with these new, stricter (and higher) targets for councils to achieve, a burden that will fall heavily on councils in the South East. Here especially, there’s a huge need for social rented housing and other genuinely ‘affordable’ housing, but there’s nothing much on how these will be provided.
If the intention of this White Paper is getting more homes built, then it’s aimed at the wrong target. It’s not councils who mostly build the homes – they only grant the permissions. What’s preventing housing development is the failure of developers to build on land for which they already have planning permission. In some council areas, ‘land banked’ land on which planning permission has been granted accounts for more than the council’s entire housing target. Simply granting planning permission doesn’t get homes built, it just pushes up the value of the land. Councils need to be able to force developers to build if they’re to meet their housing targets. And there are no proposals for that in this White Paper.
And there’s a strange emphasis on ‘beauty’ in new developments – the word appears 15 times in the White Paper, including some fairly extraordinary statements such as ‘better off people experience more beauty than poorer people’. But there’s no explanation of what that means, or who will be defining what is beautiful.
But whatever’s in the Planning Act that emerges from this White Paper, it will only be a small part of the story. The detailed rules on how councils determine planning zones, the kind of policies and rules they can include in their plans, standards to prevent climate change, requirements for public involvement in making the Local Plan, and much more, will emerge in secondary legislation. And this doesn’t have to be subject to any consultation. It doesn’t even have to be agreed by parliament.
Overall, the ambition to simplify the planning system is a good one. Some of the proposals in the White Paper will achieve that. However, the emphasis on ‘beauty’ is suspiciously abstruse – beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s too subjective to use as a concept in a supposedly objective consultation White Paper. And it won’t mean more houses are built, particularly ones that people can afford.
The key proposals in this White Paper are ‘neither useful not beautiful’. They could take away significant control from councils over both the plan-making and development control process. That would be deeply unpopular, and damaging for local democracy.
A similar version of this article is also published on the newly launched ‘Sussex Bylines’ news website:
Dramatic cuts in income have left councils with big budget shortfalls, and no way to get the money they need to provide day-to-day services. Had the Covid-19 crisis happened back in 2010, there wouldn’t have been such a problem. Ten years of austerity have left councils in no fit state to cope.
The government has so far come up with around £3bn in additional support for councils, and after saying there would be no more money, an additional scheme has been floated to replace at least some of councils’ lost income. However, it remains to be seen whether this saves all, or even most, councils from insolvency.
Up to 2010, most council funding came from council tax, business rates and government grants. These grants accounted for well over half of council funding. Income generated from fees and charges was an important, but relatively small, portion of the money used to run council services.
A survey carried out by the Local Government Association predicted a gap in English council budgets, caused by loss of income and additional COVID costs, of £10.9m. Here in Sussex, reported shortfalls in council budgets include:
- £50m in Brighton and Hove City Council;
- £23-£25m each for East and West Sussex County Councils;
- Between £1.5m and £10m for each of the 12 district councils.
A recent study by the Centre for Progressive Policy revealed that out of 151 ‘upper tier’ English councils, including county councils and single-tier unitary councils, 131 do not have sufficient reserves to cover the shortfall that has occurred because of the COVID crisis. Many of the 188 ‘lower tier’ district councils will be facing similar problems.
But during the last 10 years, the government grant element has been slashed to virtually nothing, forcing councils to find other ways to raise money to pay for the services they provide. This meant increasing, and creating new, fees and charges. Councils started to charge for services that had previously been free, as well as significantly increasing other fees – for example, home care services, residential care, car parking, cemetery and crematorium charges, and pest control.
Commercial property purchases are an easy way to generate income quickly. Councils can borrow money from the government at very low interest rates, buy tenanted commercial property, use the rental income to pay back the loan, and have a fair chunk of money left to pay for local services.
Over the last three years, councils have spent £6.6bn on buying commercial property – that’s a 14-fold increase on the previous three years. In many ways, this is a good thing. Most large commercial tenants would far rather have the local council as their landlord than a faceless, inaccessible corporation based in Bermuda with no interest in the local area. But the current COVID financial chaos has left many big companies in difficulty, and unable to pay their rent.
Poundstretcher, John Lewis, Debenhams, Monsoon, Laura Ashley, Oak Furnitureland, and many more have reported that they’re in trouble, and will be closing stores, while renegotiating rents on others. Many of these will be in council-owned retail parks and shopping centres. But councils also own factory estates with small industrial units as well as pubs and cafes, many of whom will also be in difficulty. In some cases, rent deferrals for these small, local businesses have been agreed. It remains to be seen how many of them will be able to pay when the deferral period is over.
Other council income has been hit too. Income from car parking pretty much disappeared during lockdown. Other tourist attractions, for example the cliff railways in Hastings, the theatres in Eastbourne, or the i360 on Brighton seafront, provide their local councils with significant income that has been lost during lockdown.
And of course, there have been additional costs. The government has been a little better at funding these additional costs directly related to the COVID crisis, but there have been other costs that are not being funded. Costs of homelessness have risen dramatically, with more families becoming homeless because they can no longer pay their rent. Also, the government told councils that they had to get rough sleepers into temporary accommodation. Additional homelessness costs are estimated at £600,000 a year in Hastings alone.
Then there’s the cost of the council tax support scheme, where those on low incomes or benefit get money off their council tax. The government grant councils used to get for this was scrapped some years ago, although the requirement to have a local support scheme remains. While claims to council tax support schemes have not yet increased much, that’s likely to change as the national furlough scheme ends.
But the problems don’t end with this year’s budget shortfalls. Reductions in the amount collected in council tax and business rates are inevitable, but these aren’t included in the current shortfalls: local taxes collected this year don’t impact until next year’s budget. So councils could potentially be facing even bigger problems in 2021.
In the end, the government will have to come up with the money to cover the shortfall in council finances. The prospect of several hundred councils simply running out of money to pay for adult social care, children’s services, refuse collection, parks and open spaces, libraries and so on isn’t something they could contemplate.
It will cost a lot – probably significantly more than the £9bn currently quoted. That’s because the problems won’t end at the end of July. The final figure could well reach £25bn – ironically, the sum the government has ‘saved’ through those austerity cuts to council grants since 2010.
Today, New Zealand declared the country to be free of the COVID-19 virus, and scrapped all COVID-related restrictions, apart from quarantine of overseas visitors. It’s not the first country to announce that it’s COVID-free, nor is it the largest. But it is significant in that it’s a country that’s broadly comparable to European and North American nations, and took an approach to tackling the virus that was very different from that of UK.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced quarantine measures for overseas visitors and strict lockdown for New Zealand citizens very early in the outbreak. She was widely criticised for that – at that point, New Zealand had only half a dozen recorded COVID cases, or around 1.2 cases per million population, and no deaths. Today, with the country COVID-free, they have recorded 1,504 cases, and 22 deaths – that’s around 300 cases, and four deaths, per million population.
Compare that to the UK. Lockdown measures were not announced until March 23rd, by which time we’d recorded 6,650 cases and 359 deaths – around 100 cases per million. To date, the UK has recorded 286,000 cases, or 4,300 per million, and 40,500 deaths, or around 60 per million. And in the UK, the COVID-19 outbreak is far from over, with the number of new daily cases still tailing off disappointingly slowly.
There seems little doubt that the UK government was too slow to react to the crisis, and was too slow to introduce a lockdown. When it did, the population largely adhered to the rules, showing unprecedented levels of trust in the government. However, all that was blown away by the Dominic Cummings fiasco, after which all that trust evaporated. This was not so much because of what Cummings did, but that his idiotic explanation of why he did it, and why it was within the lockdown rules, was backed by the Prime Minister and the rest of the government. Even if Cummings hadn’t resigned, an approach that recognised that he’d done wrong would have allowed the government to retain some authority. But treating us all as fools by lying about it shredded all their trust and credibility. Since then, we’ve seen widespread rejection of the lockdown rules, with many now assuming they no longer matter. What’s more worrying is that the government now seems to be following the public reaction, easing lockdown with little or no scientific basis because they can no longer enforce stricter rules.
The decrease we are now seeing in the number of daily cases is welcome, but not unexpected. In summer, people spend more time outside. That, coupled with higher UV light levels that reduce the virus survival rates in the environment, leads to lower viral transmission rates. That’s reinforced by the spread of the pandemic across different countries. Back in March and April, infection rates were escalating in northern hemisphere countries, with fewer infections in the southern hemisphere. Now, as southern countries enter their winter, rates are increasing more quickly there. And across the world as a whole, the rate of COVID-19 infections is still increasing.
In New Zealand, they’ve achieved what they needed to. They used the summer months, when the virus was less easily transmitted, to eliminate it altogether, before they got to winter when infection rates would have started to rise. True, it was easier for them, because the disease arose in their summer, allowing them to get it under control more easily in the early stages. But by easing the lockdown here during summer, we are taking huge risks. In autumn, with people spending more time indoors and lower UV light levels, COVID-19 (along with all respiratory viruses) will increase again, if we haven’t got it under control.
Here in Hastings, we’ve got off pretty lightly. Only seven deaths related to COVID-19 have been recorded, and the rate of infection has consistently been in the lowest three local authority areas in the country. But that leaves us more vulnerable to a delayed outbreak, when summer ends, or before.
There is a lot we don’t know about this virus, and viruses can behave in strange ways. Variola virus, which causes smallpox, can survive for months in the environment (it was transmitted around the world on cotton bales) and kills around 30% of those infected. It’s not the most infectious disease person-to-person, because victims don’t transmit the disease until they have symptoms and are too ill to move around much. Nevertheless, smallpox had been around for more than 10,000 years. By all logic, it should have wiped out humanity a long time ago. But it didn’t, and was eventually forced into extinction in the human population thanks to a massive international vaccination programme, the first (and so far only) major viral disease where that has been achieved. Viruses do sometimes seem to self-regulate in some way – it’s not in their interests, in the sense of evolutionary advantage, to wipe out their host, or to create such levels of immunity that the virus can no longer find enough vulnerable hosts. Viruses that kill all their hosts or create high levels of permanent immunity would quickly die out, as smallpox did when those high immunity levels were created artificially.
Viruses can just disappear. In the 1490s, a bizarre viral disease emerged each summer, which killed people shockingly quickly. Sufferers could be perfectly healthy in the morning, and dead by the same evening. Men would return from work to find their entire family dead. This awful disease ravaged London and other cities in the UK every summer until the mid-fifteenth century, when it disappeared, never to return.
So understanding the epidemiology of any new virus takes a few years, and a few cycles of infection. They can be unpredictable, and we really don’t know how COVID-19 behaves in the longer term yet. The only way to be sure it won’t flare up again is to eliminate it altogether. And that’s difficult without a huge vaccination programme. Until then, the only thing we can do is put all our efforts into reducing the number of active cases, while the sun shines. If the infection levels in the UK keep dropping at their current rate, halving every three weeks or so, we should be able to get the disease under control, with new cases down to single figures by the autumn. But that level of decrease is based on current lockdown restrictions – if lockdown is eased, as the government intends, that rate of decrease could change, or indeed reverse. We just don’t know what the impact of easing restrictions will be, while infection rates are still relatively high.
If we avoid a second wave of infections in the autumn, it will be through luck rather than judgement, hoping that easing lockdown restrictions won’t change the rate of decreasing infections. But from our knowledge of the way different viruses behave differently, and our lack of any long-term data for COVID-19, we can’t be sure of that. In taking that risk, we could enter the winter months with infection levels still high, and a government unable to reimpose restrictions because it’s lost the trust of its people. And that could be very dangerous indeed.
The government has changed their advice from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’. The original message was clear and straightforward; the new one is meaningless. Even ‘Get the Pandemic Done’ would have been better, although just as ambiguous as the original vote-winning Brexit slogan.
There are some big, significant changes in the instructions we’re now required to follow. Most people are expected to return to work. We can go out for ‘exercise’ for as long as we like and as many times as we want to, and we can drive to anywhere we want to for our ‘exercise’ as long as it’s within a day’s return journey. Sunbathing and picnics are permitted too.
Overall though, the message is confused, and the variations between the different UK nations potentially problematic – are you expected to return to work if you live in Wales and work in England, for example? And how do you go back to work if the kids are still off school? The guidance about meeting friends and family is confusing too. Now, you can meet outdoors, if you maintain a two-metre distance – but only in public, not in your own garden. But you’ve always been able to chat to complete strangers while out for your hour’s exercise, with acceptable social distancing, conversations weren’t banned. The message now seems to be that arrangements that previously applied to complete strangers you met randomly now apply to friends you meet deliberately. Other bits of the new advice seem entirely illogical too, and don’t fit with the scientific logic that’s supposed to drive it. It’s OK to go to the seaside for the day, where you have no choice but to mingle with crowds of others there. But you can’t go to a holiday cottage where you can easily isolate your household and needn’t come into contact with anyone. This isn’t a clear ‘road map’ to recovery. It’s a badly drawn treasure map where x marks the spot, but the dotted line to get to it winds through unknown territory on a vague and blurry route.
While the easing (or in effect, ending) of lockdown might be a big relief for many, it’s potentially bad news for seaside resorts such as Hastings. Lockdown here has worked pretty well – car parks in town have remained empty, leaving the seafront available for local people to exercise, making it easy to maintain proper social distancing. COVID-19 has not hit Hastings hard, so far. Figures released on May 7th showed Hastings with the second lowest rate of recorded COVID-19 infections for any local authority area in the country, with 44 cases (47.4 per 100,000 population).
With the lockdown relaxed, that could well change. An influx of visitors again allowed to spend a day by the seaside, and desperate to get out of their homes, could see big numbers of tourists back on the seafront, making social distancing very difficult. The police simply won’t have the resources to enforce social distancing for that many people. So local people, and indeed the visitors themselves, will be exposed to a much greater risk of infection.
Some local businesses will benefit, for example food shops selling sandwiches and picnic foods, and takeaway food shops and kiosks. But overall, the economic benefits to the town will be minimal, with most shops, all cafes, pubs and bars, and tourist attractions, remaining closed. It would also place additional strains on council services such as street cleaning, exposing those who have to clean up after the tourists and their abandoned takeaway and picnic packaging to greater risk of infection too. So far, councils have not been compensated to anywhere near the level needed to replace lost income, let alone additional costs such as these.
There’s a big risk in releasing lockdown so dramatically all in one go, and the consequences are unclear. It is true that the virus will transmit less easily outdoors, especially now UV levels in sunlight are increasing significantly as we approach the summer equinox. Viruses, and RNA viruses such as Coronavirus in particular, are susceptible to UV in sunlight, reducing their survival times in the environment dramatically. But whether this is sufficient to prevent infection levels rising, where people are crowded together in outdoor spaces, remains to be seen. Let’s hope we’re right to assume that the risk of infection outdoors in summer really is minimal. It’s just a pity that seaside resorts such as Hastings, often the most deprived communities in the country, will be the test beds where we’ll find this out.
There’s been a lot of talk about how things will be different after lockdown, with various commentators putting their own prognosis on how we’ll all be better people in a better world when all this is over. I did at first doubt it, whether this Coronavirus pandemic would make any difference at all, or whether we’d all have forgotten about it in a year’s time. That seems unlikely now – there will I believe be lasting effects, but it’s far from clear what they will be.
The first thing is to qualify what we mean by ‘the world’. For those living in less developed countries, where the daily struggle to get enough food and clean water is the biggest challenge, and where other diseases are a far bigger threat, CV19 probably won’t change anything much. In Africa, fifty times more deaths will have resulted from Malaria than CV19 over the last two months. Let’s hope this developed-world crisis will make us realise what people in some parts of the world have to face every day, not just during this pandemic.
For us in the UK, there are a lot of questions that will need to be answered. Why was our approach to containing the epidemic significantly different from other European countries in the early stages, especially the decision to end mass community testing on March 12th? The mortality rates of those admitted to hospital seems high, at more than 30% – how does this compare to other countries? Why have 10% of the CV19 deaths worldwide occurred in the UK, when we comprise only 1% of the world’s population? And much more.
Contributing factors to our disproportionately high death toll begin back in the 1980s. The privatisation of adult social care under the Thatcher government, and the cost-cutting that went with it, has led to that sector not coping with routine pressures long before the CV19 crisis. That has now proved to be catastrophic, with privatised care homes unable to keep their residents safe. Ten years of austerity cuts to the NHS can’t have helped, and the systematic destruction of the manufacturing sector in the 1980s also left us with an inability to make the things we needed early in this crisis, from PPE to the reagents for CV19 test kits.
And yes, I do believe that Germany was helped by having a leader who was a trained scientist. A detailed knowledge of the Pyrrhic War and an ability to quote Plato doesn’t help much when you’re trying to get your head around intricate questions of virology and epidemiology. The fact that neither the Prime Minister nor the Health Secretary have any formal scientific training would not have made for the best decision-making.
The analysis of all these factors will lead to lasting changes – it has to. Hopefully, it will lead to a rebuilding of our manufacturing sector to create a sustainable future, in line with the Green New Deal proposed in the last Labour manifesto. And we must now reverse the privatisation of social care by creating a national social care service, integrated with the NHS. I’ll be expecting Keir Starmer to take all these issues up. The Labour manifesto included many policies this crisis has shown to be desperately needed. He needs to be pressing for them now.
Our own behaviour will change too. It seems very likely that more people will work from home, now both employees and employers realise that could save them a fair bit of money. But I’m not sure that will mean a reduction in car journeys, at least not initially – people are likely to jump into their cars more often when lockdown is over, as they’ll be reluctant to travel by public transport and risk infection. Air travel seems unlikely ever to recover to its former levels, which can only be a good thing, and a third runway at Heathrow is thankfully now just a silly dream. Our town centres will never be the same again, as people stick with the habit of buying ‘stuff’ online, and realise they don’t need to go to town to do that, and it was never much of a leisure activity anyway. The future of pubs and cafes seems to be in question, but my guess is that they will bounce back, eventually, when social distancing is relaxed, probably after a vaccine becomes available. It’s possible we’ll exercise more too – many people seem to be taking their one hour’s exercise a day when they would never have considered even walking to the end of their garden before lockdown. And it remains to be seen whether the big reduction in strokes and heart attacks presenting at hospital A&E is caused by people not seeking help when they should, or whether there is a genuine reduction because people are less stressed.
More broadly, it’s difficult to say whether our behavioural changes will stick. There’s no doubt that many of us have rediscovered our love for home and garden – the unavailability of flour and potting compost testify to that. We’re digging vegetable plots, baking bread, and building chicken coops. Will we still all be enjoying cakes from our home-grown eggs and fruit when all this is over? I hope so. It will make us better people.
And what of the new-found love for our neighbours, the Thursday evening applause for the NHS, the support and co-operation within our communities? Will that remain? I’m not so sure about that. This crisis has brought out the worst in some, as well as the best in others. From the driver caught doing 130 mph in a 40 mph limit to the nursery workers who refused to look after the children of NHS staff, not everyone has been a hero. But many have, in their own small way, whether it’s getting groceries for an elderly neighbour or sharing those home-grown vegetables – believe me, my entire street will be sick of courgettes if this goes on into Autumn. And of course, the health and other front-line workers, who have sacrificed so much for the rest of us, including in many cases their lives. Maybe that will make us remember what’s really important. Can you ever imagine your neighbourhood coming out onto the street to applaud hedge fund managers?
But behind all this remains one big, continuing challenge: climate change. It’s still the biggest threat to our species, far greater than CV19. And it’s far from clear what the impact on climate change will be as we emerge from this crisis. The rush for economic growth could push climate considerations into the background – pollution levels in affected parts of China are already back to pre-lockdown levels. This does seem like an opportunity to switch to sustainable economic growth. And we’ve learned one big thing from this crisis: when governments are really under threat, the money can be found. The laws governing how a virus replicates or how the earth is warming are natural, we can’t change them. The laws that govern our economy are of human construct, we can change them. And change them we must.
So the long-term changes that emerge from this pandemic are far from clear, and not automatic. We can make a better world, but we will need to shape it for the better. To push them in the right direction will require community and political pressure, in which we’ll all need to play our part. We can’t just let it happen. We need to make sure lasting change benefits the many, not the few. And it must be change that benefits not just our species, but all life on earth.
Keir Starmer has secured an impressive victory as Labour Party leader, and has appointed his shadow cabinet and shadow ministerial team. But what does this mean for the Labour Party? Is it really an end to Corbynism? Does it mean a return to Blairism? And does it mean we can look forward to a Labour Government?
On the face of it, the 56% share of the vote on the first round of voting looks convincing. Another way of looking at it could be that it’s the smallest percentage share of the vote a Labour leader has ever been elected on, since the One Member One Vote system of elections was introduced. But then, there have only been three elections under that system, with Jeremy Corbyn winning the other two, with 59% and 62% of the votes cast.
Nevertheless, it’s still impressive. The favoured candidate of the left, Rebecca Long-Bailey, secured only 28% of the vote. So does that mean the Labour Party membership has suddenly seen the pale blue Blairite light and returned to the path of post-Thatcher neoliberalism? No, not really.
Many of those who voted for Keir Starmer had been keen supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and the 2017/2019 manifesto. They still are. They voted for Keir for two main reasons. Firstly, because his candidate statement and the ‘ten pledges’ he made indicated that he would retain the most radical parts of the manifesto, saying ‘we are an anti-austerity party. We believe in common ownership. We want a fairer and more peaceful world. We have led the way on climate change and the need for a Green New Deal.’ His pledges include a continuing commitment to common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water, ending outsourcing in the NHS, repealing the Trade Union Act, increasing income tax for the top 5% of earners, abolishing Universal Credit, and putting the Green New Deal at the heart of everything we do. Secondly, he came across in interviews as relaxed, professional, competent and personable. Any Labour leader who is putting forward a radical manifesto needs to be able to resist the media onslaught of personal attacks that they’ll inevitably receive. He looked like he’d be up for the fight. And his campaign was brilliantly well organised. He phoned me personally during the campaign – not to canvass for my vote, but to promise me support for the local election campaign in Hastings if he won. He knew exactly how long I’d been leader of the council, and he knew I was planning to stand down. He chatted with me for a half hour. He must have done that with many other council leaders – impressive, I thought.
Rebecca Long-Bailey ran a much poorer campaign. If anything, she seemed to be supporting a less radical set of policies, presumably because she was trying to gain support by distancing herself from Jeremy Corbyn. She came across in interviews as rather robotic, nowhere near as able to speak off the cuff and deal with blind-side questions. And her apparent anti-abortion stance, coupled to her Catholicism, didn’t play well to the left either.
So a lot of those on the left ‘lent’ their votes to Keir Starmer. I know many ardent Corbynistas who voted for him. But he’ll quickly lose their support if he doesn’t deliver what he’s promised.
His shadow cabinet shows a broad political spread, an attempt to unite the different wings of the parliamentary party. There’s some representation from the former Corbyn shadow cabinet, with Angela Raynor, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Emily Thornberry still present, although several prominent Corbyn supporters have been sent to the back benches. The choice of Annaliese Dodds as Chancellor is interesting too. I know her reasonably well, she used to help a lot with election campaigns in Hastings when she was a South East MEP. She’s impressive, as well as being down-to-earth and a good communicator, she went down very well on the doorstep. Politically, the description I read of her as being on the ‘far left of the soft left’ probably sums her up pretty well.
However, this ‘broad church’ approach has meant that some of those Keir Starmer has brought into shadow ministerial posts certainly don’t support his ten pledges, or at least not all of them. For some of these new shadow ministers, I assume they’ve accepted shadow posts because they think he didn’t really mean it. Hopefully, Keir Starmer is better than that, and is above the tactic of lying to get into office that some of his supporters seem to think he’s pursuing. So like many others on the left of the party, I find myself supportive of what he has said, but not supportive of some of his supporters.
For those of us who remember the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader, this has some uncomfortable parallels. Blair won over some on the left with his idea that you had to adopt a centrist manifesto to get into power, then implement radical policies when you attain power. That was a lie of course – the radical policies never came. Keir Starmer hasn’t said that, but plenty of those MPs who supported him, some of whom now hold shadow ministerial positions, still believe in the Blair approach, and are ideologically opposed to much of our current manifesto.
But perhaps a parallel drawn by Owen Jones in a recent Guardian article is more optimistic. George Lansbury, a left-wing Labour leader, was displaced by the ‘soft left’ Clement Atlee, who went on to lead the most radical Labour government we’ve ever had. The comparison is a bit adrift, in that Lansbury never lost a general election, there wasn’t one during his time of office. But Atlee came to power after a period of great turmoil – while the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing like a world war, whatever the press would have us believe, it’s an interesting comparison.
So it remains to be seen whether Keir Starmer sticks to his promises. I hope he does. If he doesn’t, the Labour Party membership will rapidly shrink. It’s still the largest political organisation in Europe, but all those younger members who joined the party during the Corbyn years because they wanted radical change won’t stick around if he simply oversees a drift back into Blairite centrism. It’s not just about winning back those northern ‘working class’ constituencies, it’s about retaining and building on the young, radical vote that brought us unexpected gains in 2017. We have to be winning both the Copelands and the Canterburys if we’re to get back into government. Keir Starmer can achieve that, and he’s got my support to do it, based on retaining that radical manifesto. But he has to remain true to all those radical party members who supported him.
Keeping chickens has been such an enormous pleasure. There’s something very relaxing about them, their movements, the noises they make, their behaviour … it’s a much more pleasurable experience than I’d expected. And of course, fresh eggs every day.
We’d been thinking about getting chickens for a couple of years. Our garden is a reasonable size, but not huge (about 30 metres long), so we had to think about how we’d fit them in. After a lot of research and a chicken keeping course at Mantel Farm in Catsfield, we finally succumbed last September. We bought three: Marge (a Light Sussex, the white one); Phyllis (a Cuckoo Maran, the speckled one); and Hilda, (a Skyline, the brown one). They quickly established a pecking order: Marge at the top, although she’s the most placid and doesn’t mind being picked up, and Hilda at the bottom, she’s the least placid and hates being picked up. The names come from Jo’s three great aunts – long dead now, but she thinks they would have approved. We did wonder what the cats would make of them, but after being a little alarmed at first, they’ve quickly accepted them as part of the family.
Their house and enclosed run came from ‘Buttercup Farm’, an online retailer – expensive, but very solid and completely fox proof. The chicken house part is 1.8m x 1.2m, the attached covered run is 2.4m x 1.2m. It did need a bit of modification though to block up the eaves (installing a covered air vent instead) and fitting a door jamb. The house wasn’t designed for coastal environments where the rain falls horizontally. We tried a number of different feeds, but eventually settled on Marriage’s Organic layers’ pellets, which they seem to like best. We also give them ‘treats’ made up a mixture of dried maize and mealworms. Treats are how you get chickens to co-operate – once they learn the sound of a shaken treat box, they’ll go anywhere you want them to. We also give them a tin of tuna occasionally – they love tuna, and it provides lots of protein. But overall, chickens seem to eat more or less anything: worms, snails, woodlice, spiders, grass, weeds, courgettes, cabbage, and indeed your favourite plants if you let them. On this diet, they lay about an egg a day each – a bit less in the depths of winter. Hilda, the Skyline, lays blue eggs. The other two lay brown eggs.
The floor of the enclosed run (which is just earth) is covered with a 100cm or so layer of hardwood chips, which are cheap and work well, giving the chickens something to scratch around in. The coop part is quite large, and has allowed us to use a ‘deep litter’ system. You don’t hear much of deep litter chicken management nowadays. It used to be popular, but was abandoned in favour of more ‘hygienic’ methods. But I wanted to try it as it’s how my Dad used to keep chickens, in the garage in Chobham at the house where we lived until I was five years old (we didn’t have a car then). ‘Deep litter’ was something I heard every day, and was quite probably one of my first words.
The idea with deep litter is that you turn the floor of the chickens’ indoor housing into a sort of compost heap. That requires a bit of modification to the housing. I asked for the pop-hole (where the chicken pop out) to be raised six inches above the floor when I ordered the housing, and I had to put a board across the bottom of the door opening. You put in a deep layer of bedding, and allow the chickens to scratch around in it, mixing their droppings in. A natural decomposition process starts, with an ecosystem established in the litter, from microorganisms up to predatory arthropods, and indeed the chickens themselves. The advantage of deep litter is that you don’t have to clean it out for months; the disadvantage is that it has to be quite carefully managed to make sure the process works as it should, maintaining the right kind of decomposition of the droppings and the right microflora in the bedding.
I used hemp bedding, which is very absorbent and stops the litter getting too damp. If the moisture content gets too high, the droppings will decompose producing ammonia, which is toxic. I put in a 150cm layer, and rake it over once a week, using a cultivator hoe to make sure air remains in contact with the droppings and hemp bedding throughout. It’s been there for six months now, and there’s no sign of any ammonia odours, it still smells as sweet as when I put it in. I was thinking it would need changing after six months, but I’m going to leave it longer now. The chickens like it, scratching around in it and picking out insects that are now in the bedding helping the decomposition process. It’s also still quite dry, which seems to be more to do with the extraordinary absorbing properties of the chopped hemp. Using the deep litter system, the rest of the weekly clean-out (cleaning the nest boxes, washing their perches, refilling their oyster shell and grit, generally tidying up) takes about half an hour.
When we’re out in the garden (or in the summerhouse, which is close to the chickens) we let them out into a larger, uncovered run. It’s not fox proof, but is fairly robust – we’ve used chicken fencing from Omlet, an online supplier – pricey, but good quality and easy to move around. Throughout the winter, they roamed our vegetable patch (with our winter kale and spring cabbage carefully enclosed in a cage), which worked really well, they scratched it over, fertilised it, and got rid of all the weeds. Now they’ve moved on to their summer quarters, part of the lawn and our ‘wild area’.
So it’s been an enjoyable experience. Marge, Hilda and Phyllis are part of the family. They provide us with eggs and endless, calming entertainment. If you’re thinking about chicken keeping, I can recommend it. And if you’re not thinking about it, and you’ve got the space, do consider it!
While we’re all thinking about viruses, it might be interesting, to some at least, to consider how these things came into being in the first place, which in itself opens up some interesting philosophical questions.
Viruses are beautifully simple. If you believed in intelligent design, they are the ultimate in design simplicity, if you’re aiming at a ‘thing’ that can replicate itself, albeit a pretty malicious design. Just a bit of genetic material surrounded by a protein coat that protects the genetic material and gets the virus into its host cell.
In the past, it was accepted in evolutionary theory that viruses evolved later than their hosts, from more complex life forms, in common with other parasites. A tapeworm, for example, cannot live outside its host – it has no sensory organs as such, no motility, no digestive system – it just absorbs food from its host and devotes its entire existence to making tapeworm eggs, to infect more hosts. It’s not difficult to imagine how such a creature could have evolved from a more complex worm that was eaten by the host, took up residence in its gut, and gradually evolved into a simpler organism because it no longer needed eyes, a mouth, a digestive system, motility, and so on.
But for a virus, it’s difficult to imagine how such simplicity could evolve from a more complex organism. Also, fossil records (using the word ‘fossil’ broadly to mean all ways of detecting traces of different life forms in very old rocks) show viruses have been around pretty much from the beginning of life on earth. So how could that be, when there were no more complex animal or plant hosts for them to parasitise?
To ponder this, we have to go back a long way – about two billion years, when life diverged into three groups: Prokaryota, Eukaryota, and Archaea. The difference between Eukaryotes and Prokaryotes is the most fundamental division of life forms on earth. Prokaryotes are all single cells, but their cells don’t have a defined cell nucleus containing their DNA – it just sits in the centre of the cell. Prokaryotes are by far the most numerous group, including all bacteria, and the photosynthetic blue-green bacteria (often wrongly called ‘blue-green algae). Eukaryotes have a defined cell nucleus containing their DNA, enclosed by a nuclear membrane. This group includes all unicellular and multicellular plants and animals, from amoeba and single-celled plants to higher plants and mammals. There are other differences between Eukaryotes and Prokaryotes, but it’s the cell nucleus that’s the fundamental difference, and makes it possible for eukaryotic single cells to join together to form multicellular creatures – Prokaryotes are unable to do this. The Archaea group is a more recent invention (didn’t exist when I studied microbiology) but is a sort of catch-all group for all the weird and exotic lifeforms that don’t easily fit into the other two groups. They mostly live in strange places where other life forms can’t live – for example, boiling water in geysers, salt flats, or concentrated acids. They also often have exotic metabolisms, for example using the energy in sunlight to fix carbon from inorganic rock such as limestone.
All three of these groups have viral parasites. Indeed, pretty much all life forms have viral parasites. So that would imply that viruses evolved well before this fundamental evolutionary crossroads.
There are currently four main theories for how viruses evolved. These are:
- Virus-First Hypothesis: this says that viruses are the simplest life forms because they evolved first, they were the first self-replicating life forms. They later became obligatory parasites by parasitising more complex life forms. This is rejected by most scientists because if such life forms did exist, they were by definition not viruses, because they must have had some sort of metabolism to replicate themselves.
- Reduction Hypothesis: this says that viruses evolved from a more complex type of cell that started parasitising other cells, then evolved to be simpler, rather like the tapeworm. This doesn’t have much support either, as there’s no evidence for any kind of single-celled organism that parasitises cells by getting inside them, nor that such a thing has ever existed.
- Escape Hypothesis: this proposes that viruses are actually bits of genetic material that ‘dropped off’ the genetic material in a more advanced cell and started to reproduce on their own, but there’s no evidence for that; it seems unlikely and has never been observed.
- Coevolution Hypothesis, also known as ‘Bubble Theory’. This is an interesting one, and sounds to me the most plausible. It’s now thought that life on earth evolved in the deep oceans, around hydrothermal vents where the water was warm, and where there were all sorts of food and energy sources (and where some of the most primitive microorganisms are still found). This theory proposes that self-replicating bits of genetic material arose by chance near the vents, driven by energy sources near the vent. These vents also produced primitive fat-like ‘bubbles’ – if a bit of self-replicating material got stuck in one of those, it was protected and had a supply of food, so could drift further from the vent and still reproduce. This gave rise to two ways to replicate: find your own bubble and replicate in that, or use someone else’s bubble to replicate in, hi-jacking the primitive cellular structures they were beginning to evolve. So in this theory, viruses were there right from the very start of life – which makes sense because every life form we’ve detected on this planet is parasitised by viruses.
There’s also a very new theory called the Chimeric Origins Hypothesis, which is a variation of the Coevolution Hypothesis, but I won’t try to explain it as I don’t understand it! If anyone else does, please add a comment below …
So viruses have probably been around for a very long time, they could well have evolved alongside all other lifeforms 4 billion years ago.
And yet, at the very pinnacle of 4 billion years of evolution, we still don’t have a universal way of dealing with them. Sudden, spontaneous outbreaks of new viruses, such as we’ve seen with HIV, SARS, MERS and COVID-19, cause havoc, large numbers of deaths, and major disruption of our highly evolved societies. Of all the ‘disaster scenarios’ that could wipe out our species, from an asteroid impact to nuclear war, the spontaneous evolution of a truly deadly human virus still seems by far the most likely.
If you believe in an interventionist god (which I don’t, nor any other kind of god), it would not be difficult to imagine what viruses were for: to stop any one species becoming dominant, to guard against the hubris and arrogance of a species that could otherwise wreck the planet. But it doesn’t much matter whether you believe in a god or not, viruses are there and that’s what they have the capacity to do. The simplest, most primitive life form on the planet is still the one that could defeat us absolutely.