Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.—Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1777
In between sessions of grading my students' work, I surf the Web this weekend and find increasing evidence of minds becoming wonderfully concentrated indeed.
A case in point: An Observer story on Guardian Unlimited that warns Britain could grind to a halt in a bird flu pandemic, experts fear. It's a preview of a report that the British House of Lords is expected to make public next Friday:
A pandemic would last for between three and four months and infect an estimated 25 per cent of the population so, according to government estimates, up to 7 per cent of staff would be off at any one time.
But some companies think the real rate of absenteeism would be far higher - up to 60 per cent off at any one time.
Kevin Hawkins, director of the British Retail Consortium, told the committee last month the great vulnerability would be a shortage of lorry drivers to distribute food: 'I think our main challenge would be to keep the food supply chain going.'
Other industry figures were worried about 'cascades of failure', such as the impact if mobile phone networks were closed down by a major power failure across London.
The health service, however, has spent the past year developing detailed plans to keep services running. The World Health Organisation has said Britain and France are in the forefront of developed nations with advanced plans for such an emergency.
Compliments from WHO are always welcome, but "cascades of failure" is the phrase that resonates. Whether it's from inside knowledge of Chinese cover-ups, or just thinking it through, some people in our governments appear to be concentrating very hard.
And if that weren't enough, consider another Observer story:
The financial crisis gripping the NHS has been laid bare in an extraordinary email sent from a senior civil servant in the Department of Health, which tells officials to ignore ministers' promises on spending. It also threatens staff with disciplinary action if they disobey an order to freeze new investment. The email - details of which have been obtained by The Observer - was sent at the end of last month from the office of Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer.
It promises to sound the death knell for a range of public health programmes set up to tackle everything from alcohol abuse and cancer screening to sexually-transmitted diseases and obesity. Health experts believe the spending freeze could even hit attempts to reduce deadly MRSA outbreaks in hospitals and affect contingency planning in the event of an outbreak of bird flu. (My emphasis.)
If the United Kingdom is too poor to live, we should all be thinking as if we were to be hanged in a fortnight.