“The next deadly outbreak could happen at any time,” rumbles the voiceover in Contagion! The BBC Four Pandemic (Thursday, 9pm, BBC Four), a show that calculates the speed at which the next killer virus will rampage across the globe. A new pandemic is, we are told, not a case of if but when. The UK government now has flu at the top of its risk register, above obesity, war and Jacob Rees-Mogg. In a world already brimming with misery and despair, Contagion! is clear that we’re all going to hell in a handcart. Such is its certainty, it might as well have called itself Face It, Chumps, We’re Screwed.
Still, it seems a shame that BBC Four has passed up the opportunity to ramp up the terror levels in the manner of a 1970s public information film and show us ghoulish footage of figures in gas masks picking over piles of festering corpses. Or it could have followed in the footsteps of Steven Soderbergh’s disaster movie Contagion, in which, along with scenes of mass panic, we get to watch Gwyneth Paltrow’s patient zero get the top of her head sawn off in the name of science.
Instead, we find Dr Hannah Fry cheerfully yomping around Haslemere in Surrey trying to infect the whole town with an invented disease over a tinkling Bake Off-style soundtrack. Why? Well, in part, because it’s now illegal to make a major science programme without inviting mass audience participation, but also because there’s a yawning gap in research. Pandemic planning is currently based on a comparatively small sample size, which means researchers are making a lot of assumptions. And so, in a simulation involving several thousand civilians, Fry is using a specially devised phone app to “infect” users with a virus and track their interactions over the course of 24 hours. As mathematicians crunch the numbers, startled faces abound.
The scale of the experiment is impressive – witness the volunteers grinning broadly when they realise they’ve slaughtered eight of their neighbours – but there’s nothing much here that zombie movies and biohazard thrillers haven’t been telling us for ages. Viruses spread like wildfire; some people are more infectious than others; door handles are disgusting. One lesser-known discovery here is that, if one were trying to wipe out the middle classes, then Haslemere would be the ideal place to start.
There’s no talk of miracle cures or a Nasa-enabled exodus to another gloriously oxygenated, virus-free planet. Vaccines are useful when already stockpiled but they take four months to make – by which time humanity will be reduced to a few stragglers fighting over rusty tins of Spam. Ultimately, we only have ourselves to blame for this state of affairs – instead of getting organised after Spanish flu wiped out 3% of the population early last century, everyone just stuck their fingers in their ears and got busy melting ice caps instead.
It’s quite something that Contagion! manages to be both a cheery piece of Reithian edutainment and a grave portent of our impending doom. Send me a signal when the apocalypse is over. I’ll be in my panic room rocking back and forth while clutching Gwyneth’s severed head.