Two gentlemen of corona: the scientists helping to fight Covid-19

Boris Johnson’s medical wingmen

21 March 2020

9:00 AM

21 March 2020

9:00 AM

We will have to get used to this. Every afternoon the prime minister strides into a butterscotch room in Downing Street and stands at a lectern between two drooping flags to give the latest dolorous news to an uncertain nation. How ironic that Boris, who instinctively loathes ‘doomsters and gloomsters’, is obliged to play the mortician’s bean–counter and recite the daily tallies of the infected and the dead.

He’s flanked by the best brains in the land. On the right, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s top scientific adviser. To the left, Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer. They wear the usual suit-and-tie uniform of reassuring officialdom. And both men stand a few inches taller than the Prime Minister. Theatre directors call this the ‘stage picture’, meaning the visual contours that show the relative status of the characters in a scene.

Sir Patrick looks like a classic corridors-of-power man, a technocrat with a banker’s dark-rimmed spectacles worn slightly forward on the nose so that the rims cast shadows across his eyes. He’s watching every-thing but what is he thinking? Only he knows. His voice is classless, his delivery measured and with carefully spaced pauses. He has the faintly unsettling air of the all-knowing puppet-master, the seasoned and elusive Whitehall insider, a man who can appear in a room without the door handle having been turned.

His specialism is blood. Earlier in his career he made ‘important discoveries’ in the field of cell disease. His work revealed that ‘human arterial vasculature is actively dilated by continuous release of nitrous oxide’. Some of us knew that already, of course. His background is in Big Pharma, specifically Glaxo, where he served as president of research and development for five years. Before that he had a job that seems well suited to the current emergency. He was head of ‘Drug Discovery’. Perhaps he’s wasting his time at the public lectern. He should pop on a white coat and sprint down to the nearest lab.

We can be thankful that neither of our august wonks shows any trace of publicity hunger. When the contagion abates we will be spared the ignominy of prime-time profiteering by these cerebral elders. It’s hard to imagine either of them doing a magazine photoshoot or cosying up to the sofa–bunnies on the Graham Norton Show. All such offers will, one hopes, be politely rebuffed.

Prof Whitty is more photogenic than his colleague. He has a genial face, apple cheeks, and a definite twinkle in his shiny, chocolate-coloured eyes. He is almost entirely bald with just a few untrimmed outgrowths tufting around the ears. He looks like a kindly scientist from a children’s story, a beady-eyed thinker with a distracted air and an academic bent. Sartorially, he is rumpled rather than dishevelled. The green tie sags, the collar is loose. He clearly has no taste for those costly handmade suits that sharpen the outlines of the torso. And he has a different speaking style from Sir Patrick, who skims his notes carefully and prepares each soundbite before he delivers it. Prof Whitty is comfortable going off-piste and improvising, though some of his phrasings look a bit weird on the page. ‘This disease will accelerate up now, really quite rapidly,’ he said on Monday. He added: ‘Some people will get it and will have no symptoms at all. They won’t even realise they’ve had it.’ That last sentence has a double meaning he didn’t intend.

He’s keen to bring a note of optimism to his sombre mission. ‘Let me start off with the most cheery point about this,’ he told the press. ‘The chances of any individual person actually dying from coronavirus are actually very low.’ Less than 1 per cent, he suggested. And that figure was likely to fall when the numbers of ‘asymptomatic’ sufferers were taken into account. His orders to everyone are simple — caution in public, self-isolation if necessary, regular handwashing.

By an odd coincidence this advice about hygiene was anticipated by the Queen in 2015, when she conferred on him the Order of the Bath. He also holds an olde-worlde title, ‘Professor of Physic’, at Gresham College. This obscure seat of learning in Holborn, just west of the Square Mile, was established by the financier Sir Thomas Gresham in the days of Elizabeth I. Back then, London was regularly visited by plagues that closed the theatres and sent the rich scooting off to the countryside to breathe cleaner, purer air.

Shakespeare often found himself un-able to write for months on end because the Globe had gone dark. Even today, schoolboys should be thankful for the primitive state of 16th-century medicine. Had vaccinations been available, the Bard’s complete canon would be three times longer than it is. In this crisis, the Elizabethans must be our example. They coped. It’s our turn now.

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