This column’s established policy is not to panic over either swine flu or Labour leadership flu. Outbreaks of both occur from time to time and are easily spread by modern life, notably by air travel and 24-hour TV news channels. The authorities do their best.
Inevitably mistakes happen, so I am happy to report the Department of Health has coped well with parallel outbreaks of both viruses in recent days, better than some Whitehall departments which must remain nameless, prime minister.
On the swine flu front, initial predictions that the inevitable global catastrophe - on the scale of Spanish flu in 1918 - had finally arrived seem to be rapidly receding, though Alan Johnson has been sensibly reminding MPs and TV viewers that a second wave is likely in the autumn.
In 1918 the first wave was mild, and the second killed more than World War I, so ministers are grateful to have time to order extra antiviral vaccines, dust off the ventilators and distribute masks - whatever the mockery it attracts from columnists who won’t be blamed if things go wrong. As chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson likes to say on these occasions “we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t”.
It is worth noting in passing that the situation in Mexico and wider Latin America has been confused, the death rate possibly attributable to poorer nutrition and other local factors, although, as the secretary of state told MPs, that would point to outbreaks in Africa: there have been none so far.
But the World Health Organisation makes progress. When SARS caused a panic in 2003, the Chinese government was initially cagey and unco-operative. Today it allows WHO teams in, as do Vietnam and Cambodia, but not Indonesia.
The situation is equally unclear, and as unlikely to affect our lives, in the Labour leadership flu scare. A bad week - defeats and retreats at Westminster for Gordon Brown - prompted attacks on his leadership defects from the usual quarters. Harriet Harman effectively ruled herself out from a future leadership bid, as Mr Johnson did not when asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr. The exchange is worth quoting:
Marr: “But there are no circumstances in which you would be drafted or would…”
Johnson: “Well I’m not saying there’s no…”
Marr: “Well, of course.”
Johnson: “I have no aspiration for the leader. My aspiration was for the deputy leadership and I couldn’t even get that - quite rightly because I thought Harriet Harman was a better candidate. You know I’m not driven by this ambition. I want to be part of a good government and I want it to be led by Gordon Brown. I actually admire Gordon Brown tremendously. I think he’s a man for these times…”
I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as an honest response by a decent man who does not hunger for the top job but will not - in all honesty - rule it out if things change. As a likeable working class champ taking on “Tory toffs” Johnson would, I now think, be well placed if Brown goes soon. But it won’t happen.
Back in the real world of hospital superbugs, Rose Gibb, former Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells trust chief, lost her High Court claim for £175,000 worth of severance pay, to the relief of ministers. There was even speculation that the ruling might allow RBS banker Fred Goodwin’s pay-off to be challenged.
Meanwhile the Audit Commission complained that NHS boards have all the right processes to do the job - but lack the “rigour”, in Maidstone, Mid Staffordshire and elsewhere. As so often, in hospitals and banks alike, human failings prove decisive. Men, not measures, matter most.