There are leaks and there are leaks – how easy should it be to find a leaker?
The recent leaks of Top Secret and other documents have generated a massive debate in the US and other press outlets as to the potential damage caused by this classified material getting into the public domain and who could have leaked it and why.
Many of the comments are speculative and not looking at the actual classifications on the documents and what this mean. As these will point clear to a relatively small cohort of people who should have access to them.
The most highly classified document has the header and footer below:
So, what do these terms and abbreviations mean in reality?
Top Secret: – information that id compromised could cause Exceptionally Grave Damage to national security or international relations.
HCS-P – HUMINT Control System – Product – Contains information derived from sensitive Human Intelligence sources (spies)
SI-G – COMINT (Gamma) – This is communications intelligence derives from intercepting different communications and the Gamma is an extra compartment suggesting more sensitive collection means.
TK – Talent Keyhole – Satellite or U2 spy plane derived Signals Intelligence, Communications Intelligence Measurement and Signature Intelligence or Imagery Intelligence – this is another limited compartment restricting who can access the information. For example, if you are Top Secret cleared it doesn’t give you automatic right to TK material or SI-G material.
FGI – Foreign Government Information – it says what it means, information and intelligence has been obtained via foreign government, usually through bilateral or multilateral arrangements. This makes any leak extra sensitive as it is someone else’s intelligence, entrusted to you to look after.
RSEN – Risk Sensitive – again what it says on the tin – some of the information or intelligence is especially sensitive.
ORCON – Originator Controlled – this means that further release of the information can only be authorised by the originator.
NOFORN – Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals
FISA – Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act derived – data authorised for collection using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which can data held in US based servers but belonging to non-US personnel or entities.
Secret – one step below Top Secret – information that could cause serious damage to national security.
REL – means releasable and here FIN means to Finland, UKR means Ukraine, FVEY means the Five Eyes Community (UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and NATO means releasable to NATO countries and NATO HQs.
In the US it has been quoted that there are 1.25 million people with Top Secret Clearance but that doesn’t mean they have access to these documents. Documents at all classifications are released on a need-to-know basis only as well. So only smaller number with a need for Ukraine related information and not just Top-Secret Clearance but also authorised for TK, Gamma, HCS and FISA access – with each caveat the pool of who can get access gets smaller.
In addition, the documents shown online were printed. Where Top Secret and above documents can be printed again is very carefully controlled and what is missing are the copy numbers that should be on the documents. Top Secret Material is very carefully controlled, so printer records can be checked and those who authorised the printing questioned.
Finally, to have a camera and or phone capability in a location where Top Secret Documents are available, shows a huge laps in basic security. These locations can be identified by auditing the few locations where these documents could be.
The bottom line, any leaker will be caught, that is if it is wanted that they are caught.
Sunday 27th February, Russia’s invasion and assessment. *** Updated as at 1400 hrs to add comment ref Nuclear threat***
By Philip Ingram MBE
Another day has passed where Russia has failed to achieve its main effort, the decapitation of the leadership in Ukraine. Open-source reporting indicates that Russia has still not achieved air superiority and given their on-paper air force strength it is important to ask why?
Better progress has been made along Russia’s secondary axis along the coast of the Sea of Azov from Crimea towards Mariupol trying to create a Russian controlled land bridge between the disputed Donbas region and Crimea, and therefore a land route into Russia itself.
There has been much talk of the Russian capture of Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv in the East of the country. I have even seen commentary from a senior former military commentator that Putin could have switched his main effort to the East. However further reports of the Ukrainians having recaptured it and Russian forces surrendering, add to the ‘fog of war.’
One thing you don’t do lightly in a military operation like this is switch your main effort – doing that has many of your supporting elements geographically misplaced and could give an opportunity for your opposition to seize the advantage as you redeploy them. A switch of main effort would also symbolise that your original mission has failed and would indicate that the whole mission is in jeopardy.
I don’t think Russia has taken that decision at the moment but certainly has the secondary objective of securing the whole of Eastern Ukraine and would use that as the bargaining position for peace talks should their objective of toppling the Ukrainian Government and capturing Kyiv, fail.
Pictures of Russian vehicles running out of fuel, casualties being abandoned where they fall suggest an undisciplined force with command-and-control issues and likely logistic issues. In this type of conflict, it is your logistics that could lose you the war! I must question how many Russian commanders will actually have been properly tested in the complex logistic operations needed to fight over such a wide area with such numbers of forces? I doubt it has happened.
The reports of Chechen units being brought into the battle, with one allegedly destroyed and unconfirmed reports of elements of the Belarus military being readied would suggest at this early stage that the Russians are coming unstuck. You don’t bring in reserve elements unless your main force has been fixed and you don’t bring in strategic reserve elements, which the Belarusian military would be, unless you are in real danger of losing any momentum and your tactical and operational reserves have already been fixed.
What I assess is more likely in the coming days is that Russia will use increasingly violent tactics in an attempt to surround and secure Kyiv. Possibly bombarding the city trying to break the will of the people and attempt to force the leadership to surrender in order to stop civilian casualties. This of course is contrary to the Geneva conventions and protocols and would indicate a desperate Putin.
All of this points to thinks not going well for Russia at the tactical and operational levels. Therefore I assess we are entering one of the most dangerous few days of the conflict. Putin’s forces need to try and wrestle the initiative back. They will have to throw all their resources at doing that. The pressure from Moscow for good news will be immense. The potential for extremes of violence aimed at the civilian population of Kyiv in the coming days is increasing, however, if Ukraine can blunt Russia’s moves for another few days it is distinctly possible that Putin could switch his main effort to just capturing an increasing part of East Ukraine before suing for peace.
Time and more information will tell.
*** Additional Comment as at 27 1400 Z Feb 22***
President Putin has ordered his nuclear forces to a “special” level of alert. We shouldn’t be immediately concerned at this as he hinted at the beginning of the invasion that there would be consequences for “whoever tries to hinder us,” and given the increasing pressure the international community is putting on Russia economically, increasing isolation at sea and in the air and the increased supply of weapons to Ukraine from 27 countries he likely feel his only option is to flash his big stick, ie his nuclear forces.
He is trying to gain advantage in the information sphere. His statement is also an indication that operations on the ground are not going as well as he would like and that the support the West is giving Ukraine and the amazing resolve shown by Ukrainian forces and defenders is having a very real impact on the Russian invaders.
Russia’s nuclear capability has been a very high priority for western intelligence for many years so any real changes in their status will likely be closely watched. This is an attempt at deterrence by Putin, not a statement he has any immediate intention to use nuclear weapons. However, you have to remember that if you threaten something, it is only credible if you are prepared to use them.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former British Army Intelligence Colonel and NATO planner., he is available for comment.
Russia and Ukraine – we all sit and wait
by Philip INGRAM MBE
One thing about some Western Press coverage of the potential escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, is that everyone is searching for an immediate headline and therefore examining every little statement to report an opinion and try and suggest our analysis and therefore politicians must be wrong.
Two things must be recognised, in military operations there are long periods where little or nothing happens, you can have days of inactivity and there can be many causes. The weather isn’t right, politicians are still debating what to do, key capabilities have problems which must be fixed, final rest days prior to launch, consolidating in position before packing up and going home; any of these or other issues will deny todays or tomorrows sensational headline.
The second thing is that the military don’t decide when to go. If Russia further invades Ukraine, it is not a military decision, but a political one. Military forces are merely a political tool, used to reinforce diplomacy and then to clear up the mess when diplomacy fails. Military personnel are the same all over the world, the last thing they actually want to do is put their profession into action, as they know the horrors that come with it. The person who will decide if and when those horrors begin, is Vladimir Putin. He is highly unlikely to delegate the go / no go decision.
So, what is keeping him, what is he up to? The first thing that is occupying Putin is he is enjoying the ride. He is playing with the West; he is loving being centre stage with world leaders queuing up to visit him or speak to him on the phone. He is playing them, like a fisherman plays a prize salmon on the hook. The conference table games, where some meetings are from opposite ends of a huge table whilst others are side by side with just a coffee table between; the deliberately inflammatory or inaccurate remarks in joint press calls, trying to provoke, and more.
He is not just doing this for fun, every moment, nuance, statement during and after by world leaders will be examined by Putin’s team looking for sentiments he can use to create or enhance political cracks inside other countries or between countries. He has been playing Germany particularly well and the way he got Lavrov to deal with the British Foreign Secretary showed a real distain for the UK. He will also be judging what the international reaction is likely to be if he does further invade Ukraine.
One of the things he will have registered very quickly is the increased appetite for US and UK intelligence on Russian intent to be put into the public domain. As CNN reported earlier this month, “US officials alleged that Russia has been preparing to fabricate a pretext for an invasion” of Ukraine by creating “a very graphic propaganda video” that would depict a fake attack by Ukraine against Russia. The US’ disclosure of the alleged plot is the latest in a series of revelations designed to blunt the impact of any pretext Russia may use to invade Ukraine, and comes after US officials warned that Moscow could use a false flag operation to justify such an invasion.”
The Russian response, was to play the US intelligence machine by setting 16th February as the day the attack would be launched and when that was published in the press, ridicule it, which is exactly what happened with Russia’s ambassador to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov, denied suggestions that his country had plans to attack Ukraine and said that “wars in Europe rarely start on a Wednesday,” in a snipe at the intelligence relations. Why that snipe? Simply to sow distrust in reports being attributed to US and UK intelligence and it is probable that in the coming days we will hear references to the reliability of US and UK Intelligence in the run up to the Iraq war! He fed the headline machine.
However, whilst all of this is going on their standard Russian playbook is trundling on. More capability is being deployed into higher readiness formations and positions on the border with Ukraine, whilst Russian messaging is that their manoeuvres have finished, and units are returning to barracks. This is standard маскировка (maskirovka) which is all about ‘masking’ or deception and is central to all they do.
We have seen the first cyber-attacks into Ukraine, but relatively unsophisticated and at inconsequential targets. More worrying are the political moves started by Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the Russian State Duma, when he called for a discussion in the parliamentary body on recognising the independence of the Donbas region and its separation from Ukraine.
Any formal recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic in Donbas could be used as an excuse by Putin to invade to protect the people from a humanitarian perspective. This is what I refer to as the Kosovo scenario, where Putin tries to mimic NATOs reasoning for going into Kosovo. He has referenced Kosovo more than once in the recent past.
An indicator of this coming to play are the claims we have heard over the past day or so regarding claims of genocide and the increase of shelling in the Donbas region, with suggestions of Ukrainian shelling contrary to the Minsk Protocol of 2015, designed to maintain the ceasefire. The genocide claims and what is being said around shelling is again маскировка (maskirovka), standard playbook stuff.
So, what does this mean? Well, the original analysis on potential attack dates were not before 20th February when the Winter Olympics finish, thereby not detracting from Chinas place on the world stage. Putin does not want to have President Xi lose face. The continued deployment of Russian military capability keeps that date as the earliest go date distinctly possible. There still needs to be a ramping up of маскировка (maskirovka), possible false flag incidents or one major incident and more cyber activity before Putin pushes the GO button.
He could of course, if he feels he can maintain the military readiness, de-escalate completely but he has backed himself into a corner. Can he trust the German Chancellor to keep his word if he did actually promise to stop Ukraine joining NATO, because he knows that if Ukraine does get into NATO then he had no hope of ever capturing and holding it, so now may be his only window to continue the process he started in 2014? Remember, Putin can think and act in very long timelines, salami slicing parts of Ukraine away.
I still believe Putin is looking for an excuse he can sell to the international community using another old ‘soviet’ tactic, враньё (vranyo), which means to tell a lie without expecting to be believed. He will be gauging if he can consolidate the Donbas region under Russian military control with possibly a bigger buffer and get away with that in the international community’s eyes. Threaten all, take a piece and hope the world goes “phew” is that all?
The lie is told purely to save face knowing they won’t be challenged, and we saw this when RT interviewed Colonels Chepiga and Mishkin after the Salisbury Novichok poisoning and they came out with their infamous spire height quote. Remember, he likes the Kosovo scenario.
President Putin is still sitting behind his grand desk in Moscow, with a very large glass of the best vodka on ice, stroking a white cat on his knee, knowing he has the world dancing to his tune, and he is loving it.
This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer and Colonel. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE
Russia and Ukraine – an Intelligence goldmine
As the crisis between Russia, Ukraine and the West continues to deepen and speculation over a potential conflict, and its scope, grows, what is clear is President Putin has given the West an unprecedented opportunity for intelligence gathering at so many different levels.
What has been noticeable on the many open-source aircraft monitoring platforms are the airborne intelligence gathering platforms that have been bracketing Ukraine, Russia and Belarus from Poland, the Baltics, inside Ukraine and from the Black Sea, hoovering up information from different sources and turning it into intelligence.
There hasn’t been an opportunity since the Cold War for the deployment of large formations of Russian Ground Troops, configured for a large-scale warfighting operation to be looked at and examined in so many different ways. So, what is likely to be going on and what will we know?
The first caveat is that I have to be more generic that I would like to but within the intelligence game there are only so many ways to gather information whether through the use of humans or through exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum. The actual capability of many if not all of the collection platforms being targeted at the Russian build up remain highly classified and my analysis is therefore speculative but from a position of knowledge having overseen many operations to monitor large formation deployments of Russian style formations.
There is a real alphabet soup of intelligence techniques that will be targeted against Russia, and each will be hoovering up vast amounts of information, processing it into a specific brand of intelligence that will then be fused together to provide all source intelligence thereby building a much better and clearer picture as to what is going on.
I do have to caveat that when a sensor picks something up it means it has happened, i.e. it is history and intelligence is all about looking at what has happened in order to predict what will happen. Predicating the future is never an exact science and if fraught with potential misinterpretations; especially when the opposition know what you are doing and are therefore actively trying to deceive you.
So, what are the aircraft doing and what can they see from so far away from the Russian border? Essentially, they are carrying out 3 types of intelligence gathering, SIGINT, ELINT and MASINT.
Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) will be listening to all of the broadcast communications between military units, formations, headquarters and bases, looking at the frequencies used, the networks that are operational and what is being said in the messages. This will have the ability to conform the order of battle, i.e., what formations with what kit are deployed and, as the units and formations practice their communications, it will give the intelligence specialists a lot of material to decrypt, confirm previous knowledge and prepare wider indicators and warnings for certain activities.
Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) will be monitoring all of the Radar and other emitters operating in support of Russian activity. It will be looking at what they use to find and track targets and what weapon systems could be used supported by the radars. It will also be looking at the control mechanisms for weapon systems. The very act of flying aircraft, and in the case of the HMS Queen Elizabeth deployment, sailing a warship along the Ukrainian Coast, will stimulate a lot of electronic activity. The ELINT Sensors will hoover all of that activity up and use it to make sense of what systems are being used, but also use it to understand how to disrupt those systems if needed.
Next comes MASINT – Measurement and Signature Intelligence, and this is where the operational and tactical magic happens when monitoring large ground-based formations. vehicles are effectively lumps of metal and they emit different heat and radar signatures to natural surroundings and even buildings. MASINT can be used to monitor what is where, what has moved and give indication on what could be happening. It takes a long time to prepare Armoured formations for operations and they must prepare for specific formations as they advance, all of this data can be picked up utilising a number of techniques when applied to MASINT sensors. This message the Russians will know well, as they have their own capabilities, nothing is hidden, no matter how many camouflage nets there are over it, the only real secret is how much can be seen and how far away?
As platforms are flying, they will be stimulating activity on the ground in response, stimulating reports being sent up chains of command, sent to military and political masters and these reports relate to activity we know about, because we will have caused it. These reports will be targeted by more strategic collection capabilities to identify how they are processed and sent and therefore identify potential vulnerabilities in the systems used to process them and the mechanisms of their transmission. This information is vital in allowing newer responses through cyber to be brought to bear if necessary.
It is the good old tactic espoused by General Rupert Smith during the first Gulf War, when he said, “If the pond is still, don’t be afraid to thrown in a pebble and watch how the waves promulgate.” This is exactly the same tactic used in June 2020 when HMS Defender sailed along the Crimean Coast and for the whole of the HMQ Queen Elizabeth task force deployment, watching those who were watching it, was invaluable.
Of course, the airborne assets will be complementing what the space-based assets are monitoring and being used to complete the picture from 2 other critical intelligence disciplines. The first being HUMINT, at a strategic level the national agencies of many countries will be trying to find out what is going on inside the Russian Political, military, and operational headquarters and working to get a handle on the wider intent of President Putin and the real capability of the military forces deployed.
It is almost certain Ukraine will have HUMINT assets targeting the Russian formations deployed close to its borders looking at the orders of battle and the levels of preparations. However, one of the most valuable resources is the huge amount of Open-Source material that is circulating on various social media platforms. There are hundreds of pictures and videos of Russian equipment being moved towards the borders, pictures of training and troops putting personal pictures onto social media. This Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is invaluable and colours in or targets much of the information and intelligence gathered from more classified sensors.
So, what is likely to happen? That is anyone’s guess at this point, but there are certain factors that come to bear. Putin won’t want the full might of the international community to come to put pressure on his fragile economy, but he must be seen to do something for his domestic audience and for the massive deployment to seem ‘legitimate.’ He seems to like the NATO Kosovo scenario of going to protect an element of the local population, but to do that he needs to escalate the crisis to the international community before he can think of going, else he needs to de-escalate his preparations in the eyes of the Russian public.
The sorts of potential indicators and warnings of a potential move could include:
- Increasing domestic rhetoric suggesting Western Interference
- Increased international rhetoric accusing the west of interference
- Increasing Rhetoric around ethnic Russians being targeted
- Rhetoric around Ukrainian incursion into Russia
- Increased Belarus activity on Polish border with refugees
- Ukraine Cyber attack
- Global Cyber attack
- Russian Black Sea fleet deployed
- Elements of the Russian Med Fleet deployed
- Elements of the Russian Northern Fleet Deployed
- ‘Manufactured’ terrorist activity both against Ethnic Russians but also inside Russia itself – bombs in Moscow / Airliner Shot Down?
However, if he does, he will have limited objectives the worst-case scenario could be annexing a large part of Eastern Ukraine where the majority Russian Speakers live. He is likely to calculate this as being just under the threshold of a very robust Western intervention as the last thing Putin could afford is a conflict with the West and he knows this, but emotionally he wants all of Ukraine. He could easily de-escalate but indicators of that will be domestically focused rhetoric regarding meeting Russias objectives and capitulation by the West in some way. We live in interesting times and the robustness of our political leaders will likely be tested to their fullest extent.
A potential Op Plan schematic for a limited Russian Invasion is:
As the situation develops, further blogs will drill into the detail of what we are seeing but the author can be contacted at any time and details are available on the Contact Us Page. Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence.
COVID-19 an Intelligence assessment
by Philip Ingram MBE
One of the worst things a Prime Minister has to admit to his country is that, “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time,” as Boris Johnson was forced to say in his press conference about what the UK was going to do about the COVID-19 pandemic. He, with the country’s chief scientist and the Chief Medical Officer for England and Wales, who had consulted got agreement with the Chief Medical Officers of Scotland and Northern Ireland, explained the current position with the COVID-19 pandemic and what the government’s response would be.
The general feeling after the briefing was it was considered, informative, measured and frightening all at the same time. However, this hasn’t stopped the armchair scientific and medical experts such as Nigel Farage and Piers Morgan from berating the response because it doesn’t match or go further than the responses of some other countries. Comments from influencers like Morgan, such as “The government seems to be avoiding draconian ‘shutdown’ action now because we will all get too bored with it,” display a shocking naivety that, from a journalist, is at the least unhelpful and is certainly unprofessional. Maybe now is the time to do a proper intelligence assessment of what we know.
The thing to realise about intelligence assessments, as intelligence is very often blamed after the fact for not seeing things that were not there at the time of writing. It is an assessment at a snapshot of time and as the situation develops and more information, or ‘unknowns’ be come known, then it is likely to change. No enemy on the battlefield follows your plan because it is in your intelligence assessment, no terrorist gets caught because you have assessed how small the threat is, no virus will do exactly what you predict.
What is a virus?
The microbiological society describes a virus as the smallest of all microbes. With some, they are so small that 500 million could fit on to the head of a pin. They are unique because they are only alive and able to multiply inside the cells of other living things. The cell they multiply in is called the host cell.
A virus is made up of a core of genetic material, either DNA or RNA, surrounded by a protective coat called a capsid which is made up of protein. Sometimes the capsid is surrounded by an additional spikey coat called the envelope.
Under a process called Lysis, virus particles burst out of the host cell into the extracellular space resulting in the death of the host cell. It is this that causes the damage to the host organism, and the symptoms experienced, when many cells are killed. Once the virus has escaped from the host cell it is ready to enter a new cell and multiply.
An organism, if exposed to the virus or a similar version may have a degree of immunity as it has the genetic pattern to develop antibodies to fight the viruses and restrict their spread. The danger is when a novel virus is discovered, as organisms will have no pre prepared defences to these.
The next question has to be, what is CoronaVirus and what is COVID-19?
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the US (CDC), coronavirus is the name for a family of viruses that were first identified in the 1960’s. They are named for the crown-like spikes on their surface (envelope) and there are four main sub-groupings known as alpha, beta, gamma, and delta.
People around the world commonly get infected with some human coronaviruses and in recent years it has been identified that coronaviruses that infect animals can evolve and jump the species gap to humans. Three recent examples of this are; severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS (SARS-CoV-1), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS which were both identified as beta viruses and now we have coronavirus disease 19 or COVID-19 which has been designated as a novel corona virus, i.e. it doesn’t fit into any already known category and therefore any immunity to other types of coronavirus that is present in a species can be bypassed by this strain. The name of the virus that causes COVID-19, the disease, is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2).
Comment: Much is already known about coronaviruses, about their protein makeup, their genetic coding, their transmission, their strengths and their weaknesses, there has been over 50 years research into them already and SARS and MERS have given recent impetus to the scientific community. SARS-COV-2 is closely related to SARS-COV-1 which emerged in 2002. Therefore, the scientific fight against COVID-19 disease is not from a standing start, it is from a position of many years research. Comment Ends.
Where did COVID-19 come from?
Here conspiracy theories abound, as the reality is the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is only a scientific assessment. However, based on over 50 years research into coronaviruses and that the international scientific community is quick at checking and commenting on all of the relevant works and studies in the scientific community, their current assessment is probably accurate; it is certainly extensively peer reviewed.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) situation report of 21st January 2020 said that on 31st December 2019, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) China office heard the first reports of a previously unknown virus behind a number of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, a city in Eastern China.
On 11 and 12 January 2020, WHO received further detailed information from the National Health Commission China that the outbreak is associated with exposures in one seafood market in Wuhan City.
In February nature magazine reported that, “Chinese scientists suggested, on the basis of genetic analyses the prime suspect was the scaly ant eating pangolin. However, it then went on to say that scientists have now examined that data and say that although the animal is still a contender, the mystery is far from solved.
Other animals that are known as host of various coronavirus strains are Bats and they, like the Pangolin, were sold live in the Wuhan market. MERS and SARS were originally corona viruses hosted on bats, so it is now thought that they are the most likely contender.
Apportionment of its source is made slightly more conspiratorial by the fact that Wuhan is the site of China’s only facility designated at Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) and is known as the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control (WHCDC). It was constructed in 2004 following the SARS emergency to conduct research into countering such viruses. Level 4 facilities are designed to stop the escape of even the smallest particles, so accidental escape is highly unlikely. Despite sensational speculation in some press circles, there is no evidence in the scientific community that the COVID-19 disease is a result of WHCDC activity.
Comment: Coronavirus species jumps have been identified in the past, bats were identified as the source of the SARS corona virus and given the initial reporting in the city of Wuhan, the focus around the seafood market, it is highly likely that the ground zero for the COVID-19 disease is Wuhan and the seafood market. However, it is possible that the exact source will never be identified and therefore likely that sensationalised speculation will continue. Comment Ends.
How dangerous is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is a new illness and as such no one will have any inherent immunity to the virus that causes it and an understanding of how the disease develops in humans is just being observed. This lack of inherent immunity means that the herd immunity principals that restrict the spread of known viruses and the peak of their impact in numbers, does not exist.
The main symptoms of COVID-19 are a cough, a high temperature and, in severe cases, shortness of breath.
According to NHS England, because COVID-19 is a new illness, exactly how it is spread from person to person is not fully understood. However, the WHO says, “The disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales. These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people then catch COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. People can also catch COVID-19 if they breathe in droplets from a person with COVID-19 who coughs out or exhales droplets.”
It goes on to say, “Illness due to COVID-19 infection is generally mild, especially for children and young adults. However, it can cause serious illness: about 1 in every 5 people who catch it need hospital care. While we are still learning about how COVID-19 affects people, older persons and persons with pre-existing medical conditions (such as high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, cancer or diabetes) appear to develop serious illness more often than others.”
The UK Government says, “a minority of people who get COVID-19 will develop complications severe enough to require hospital care, most often pneumonia. In a small proportion of these, the illness may be severe enough to lead to death. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, confirmed this in his statement of 12th March 2020.
On 30 January 2020, the WHO declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” (PHEIC). On 11 March 2020 the WHO formally declared COVID-19 as a pandemic and a pandemic is simply a new disease for which people do not have immunity that spreads around the world beyond expectations.
Exact death rates expressed as a percentage of infections is impossible to accurately state at this time as many who contract the disease will have very mild symptoms, are unlikely to be tested so formally diagnosed and recorded as having it but could still transmit it to others.
Comment: COVID-19 is extremely dangerous to certain parts of the community but will have little impact on most sufferers. However, as there is no herd immunity there is very real potential for the most vulnerable to require hospitalisation all at the same time, overwhelming medical facilities. Anyone with the disease, even with very mild symptoms, can transmit it.
Much has yet to be learned about this disease and its impact but the “So What?” is that it is critical that measures to reduce the number of severe cases and spread them over as long a time period as possible, to ensure medical facilities and staff are not overwhelmed, are taken. Those measure must be taken by all potential sufferers to have the best outcome.
People should take statistics in the press with an understanding of the reality that they are likely wrong and an over exaggeration of the risk if taken in isolation. Comment Ends.
What can and is being done about it?
Every county seems to be taking a slightly different approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which is fuelling political opportunism, sensational headlines playing on the very real fears of the population, and in turn causing anxiety in the financial markets wiping billions of their value. One thing is clear, it will pass.
The UK has very robust, tried and tested processes and procedures for dealing with pandemics. This is nothing new and the WHO has been talking about the threat form a disease X scenario for some years. Understanding of the spread, measures to deal with it for theoretical diseases have been modelled and exercised frequently and the government has a series of plans to deal with these incidents ready to go.
On 03 March 2020 the Government published its Coronavirus (COVID-19) action plan based on its experience in dealing with other infectious diseases and its influenza pandemic preparedness work. The UK government and devolved administrations, including the health and social care system, have planned extensively over the years for an event like this. The UK is therefore well prepared to respond in a way that offers substantial protection to the public.
The plan confirms that, “The majority of people with COVID-19 have recovered without the need for any specific treatment, and it is expected that the vast majority of cases will best be managed at home.
The planning principles for the UK and Devolved administrations used are:
- Undertake dynamic risk assessments of potential health and other impacts, using the best available scientific advice and evidence to inform decision making.
- Minimise the potential health impact by slowing spread in the UK and overseas, and reducing infection, illness and death.
- Minimise the potential impact on society and the UK and global economy, including key public services.
- Maintain trust and confidence amongst the organisations and people who provide key public services, and those who use them.
- Ensure dignified treatment of all affected, including those who die.
- Be active global players – working with the World Health Organization (WHO), the Global Health Security Initiative (GHSI), the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), and neighbouring countries, in supporting international efforts to detect the emergence of a pandemic and early assessment of the virus by sharing scientific information.
- Ensure that the agencies responsible for tackling the outbreak are properly resourced to do so, that they have the people, equipment and medicines they need, and that any necessary changes to legislation are taken forward as quickly as possible.
- Be guided by the evidence, and regularly review research and development needs, in collaboration with research partners, to enhance our pandemic preparedness and response.
The key is that they are evidence based, balanced, well planned and frequently modelled and lead to four phases:
- Contain: detect early cases, follow up close contacts, and prevent the disease taking hold in this country for as long as is reasonably possible
- Delay: slow the spread in this country, if it does take hold, lowering the peak impact and pushing it away from the winter season
- Research: better understand the virus and the actions that will lessen its effect on the UK population; innovate responses including diagnostics, drugs and vaccines; use the evidence to inform the development of the most effective models of care
- Mitigate: provide the best care possible for people who become ill, support hospitals to maintain essential services and ensure ongoing support for people ill in the community to minimise the overall impact of the disease on society, public services and on the economy.
The aim across the board is to delay the onset of rapid cross infection throughout the population and spread the peak and most severe cases out over a longer time period enabling current and surge medical capabilities to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 disease on those most affected.
However, a plan is only as good as those who adhere to it and the government advice to the general public needs the general public to follow that advice if there is a hope of the plan succeeding. Social distancing, seeking advice from the 111 website, handwashing are all examples of what the general public need to do to keep the government plan on track and to save as many of the most vulnerable and severe cases as possible.
Comment: The measures being outlined to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic are considered, modelled, progressive, well planned and thought through by every expert in the field. They are not made up ‘on the hoof’ and are designed to minimise the impact on sufferers, society, business and life in general. The measures do require a greater public understanding and cooperation, and this is one time when sensationalism and speculation is unhelpful at best, but more likely deadly. Comment Ends.
Why are other governments taking different actions?
Other governments may take different actions as they have different cultural norms, different scientists with differing opinions, they are likely to be at a different stage of the pandemic and all healthcare systems and social care system likely differ so strain and breaking points won’t be the same between countries. A final consideration is there is a possibility of different political considerations in decision making for example, France’s closing of schools and universities puts additional strain on adults, some of whom are key to the yellow vest processes, the banning of groups of 100 or more again could (and I emphasise could as I don’t believe this question has been asked), make it easier for President Macron to control anti Government sentiment such as the yellow vest protests which with greater pandemic spread could flare up more. In Ireland, the pressure from the closure will force the political parties to agree a new government more quickly. Unfortunately in this world one has to consider political actions as part of disaster consequence management.
The key is when you make drastic decisions such as closing schools, as you want to leave them as late as possible to reduce the social impact but take them as early as possible to reduce the spread – the Government is doing that and the scientists are watching for that point on a daily basis. Thank goodness it is an evidence based decision and not a politically expedient one or and emotionally based one. Things could be very different if we had a minority government in power and politics, not evidence based science, drove decision making.
Assessment: The current COVID-19 pandemic is a serious situation that will likely result in a number of deaths, that number will be a very small percentage of those who catch the disease as most people will recover, many without ever being formally diagnosed.
Critical to keeping the death toll to the lowest numbers possible is flattening out the peak number of severe cases at any one time in order to reduce the burden on medical facilities and personnel.
Current understanding of how pandemics spread is good, current planning for dealing with pandemics has been scrutinised by some of the best brains in the country and are generally well thought through. They rely on evidence-based assessments and have been modelled extensively.
COVID-19 will disrupt normal activities for a period of time and then society will recover. However, as ever, the success of any plan requires the support and cooperation of all involved, and in a pandemic scenario that means the general population. Recovery time for society will depend on cooperation and sticking to a well tested plan.
MERS, SARS, COVID-19 are just the latest in a series of viral infections, there will likely be more in the future and many will have a smaller impact but the potential remains for some with an even greater impact on society. Assessment Ends.
The best advice remains that on the front cover of Douglas Adam famous book, “The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy,” it says: “Don’t Panic.” The current continuously updated statistics for the pandemic can be followed here: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
This blog was written by Philip Ingram MBE a former senior Military Intelligence officer and specialist in CBRNE. He grew up in a family immersed in disease identification and control as his late father, Brian, ran a laboratory at the local hospital and his biomedical science journals were Philip’s youthful reading. He is always available for comment through the contact us page. You can always listen to this blog through our PODCAST site by clicking here: