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Did Experts Fail to “Speak Truth to Power” Over ‘Targeted Herd Immunity’?

Hardeep Matharu speaks to a NHS consultant about how the politics of inevitability infected the UK Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty

Did Experts Fail to “Speak Truth to Power”Over ‘Targeted Herd Immunity’?

Hardeep Matharu speaks to a NHS consultant about how the politics of inevitability infected the UK Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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A public inquiry is necessary to uncover whether expert advisors “failed to speak truth to power” in the face of “political pressure” over the Government’s “nihilistic” policy of creating a targeted form of herd immunity to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a prominent NHS consultant.

Clive Peedell, a consultant oncologist who co-founded the National Health Action Party, believes an important distinction should be made between academic experts and those who are experts through experience on the frontline of medicine – and is doubtful that the latter were consulted by the Government in its “poor response” to the Coronavirus crisis.

He told Byline Times that he thinks creating ‘herd immunity’ – involving the disease to move through the population, without interventions, in the absence of a vaccine – was the Government’s policy and that this “could have been an area where there was political pressure” influencing expert advisors, who may have been reluctant to tell politicians what they knew they wouldn’t want to hear.

“I think it was clearly policy and they’re rowing back because they made a mistake,” Peedell said. “My question is, did we have some expert advisors who failed to speak truth to power? That’s what I worry about – that there were concerns, that [politicians] were a bit worried about the economic consequences and [expert advisors] were told about those and they then failed to speak truth to power.”

The doctor said he was shocked to hear figures such as Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, speaking on television about 60% of the population getting the Coronavirus to create herd immunity because “it was all about inevitability”.

“I just hate the idea that it was accepted as an inevitability that 60-80% of the population was going to get it,” he said. “That was just defeatism to me, they were too nihilistic and defeatist at the beginning and actually should have understood the science and what we can achieve in terms of science now in terms of treatments and vaccines. It’s much quicker than it used to be. So you should try and spread out the development of the disease as long as you can.”

Academic Scientific Experts v Frontline Medical Experts

In a short space, the politicians at the heart of Government have gone from declaring the post-truth mantra of “people in this country have had enough of experts” to now announcing that they are ‘following the science’ when it comes to the Coronavirus at any given opportunity. 

For Peedell, the question is whether Boris Johnson and those around him asked the right experts with knowledge of the reality of a medical emergency, rather than those who could provide academic observations and behavioural science.

“I think a lot of the experts are academic modellers or researchers who haven’t got a lot of frontline experience in medicine and don’t really understand the practicalities of what they were saying,” he said.

“Obviously they have got epidemiologists and virologists, but I want to know: did they have some frontline staff on those committees like SAGE and others? Because it almost seems to me as if they didn’t really weigh up the consequences on frontline care. Have they been speaking to the heads of intensive care and A&E and infectious diseases consultants up and down the country about how it could affect our already overburdened hospitals? Did we have representation from those experts who would be able to tell you ‘well, hang on, I get what you’re saying about modelling but this is the situation on the frontline and we cannot deal with it, look what’s just happened in Italy’? I’ve got a big concern whether that actually happened or not.”

The policy of allowing the UK population to develop ‘targeted’ herd immunity to COVID-19, in the absence of a vaccine – through letting most people get it and shielding the most vulnerable – was “mad”, according to the consultant, because it was so divorced from reality. The care of vulnerable elderly people is one example of this.

“It’s going to be a knife through butter if you get an infection in a care home and we’re already seeing that,” he told Byline Times. “The people looking after the elderly are younger people who they were saying needed to be out sharing the infection. So those vulnerable people are always going to come into contact with younger people who have the virus. If they’d had an expert advisor, say in elderly care or social care medicine, they would have probably got some serious advice saying ‘well, you can’t cocoon these people’.”

Failures and Scapegoats

Peedell believes the support for the Government’s approach from the public health community should also ring alarm bells, particularly in the face of 250,000 racegoers being able to flock to the Cheltenham Festival on 10 to 13 March and thousands of fans being allowed to go to the Liverpool-Atlético Madrid game on 11 March – 11 days before a nationwide lockdown was imposed.

“The argument at the time was that, if you don’t have them in the stadium, they’ll all be crowded in the pubs, but that completely missed the point that people go to the pub anyway and the Madrid fans were coming from Madrid which was a hotspot of where the disease was in Spain at the time,” he said. “How that wasn’t stopped when we knew how serious this was, that is where the truth speaking to power resonates most for me. I think they failed to really put their views across because they were in awe of the politicians they were speaking to.”

He warned that such a failure will also be significant if – or when – Johnson and his circle begin scapegoating experts for the decisions they took. 

“There was a major failure in our public health response so actually Boris Johnson and his team, despite their failures, will have an argument to say ‘well, we listened to the science and the experts’ and to be honest they’ve got a point,” Peedell said.

In his 2018 book, The Road to Unfreedom, the historian Timothy Snyder warns against the “politics of inevitability”. He defines it as a sense that the “future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done”.   

Only a public inquiry will determine to what extent such thinking clouded the UK’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has now killed 10,000 people in this country – even though it had time to learn lessons from the horrors of the death and suffering occurring elsewhere. 

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