Scientist casts doubt on validity of Boris Johnson’s ‘workplace pilot’

A scientist has cast doubt on the validity of a workplace pilot scheme used by Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to initially avoid self-isolation, accusing the government of secrecy surrounding it and other research.

Ben Quinn 

On Monday, 24 hours on from a hasty U-turn by the prime minister and chancellor, Downing Street faced fresh questions about the workplace study and was still unable to provide basic details such as its criteria, protocols and name.

The basic scientific validity of the study was questioned by Prof Jon Deeks, who is co-chair of a Royal Statistical Society working group reviewing evidence on Covid-19 testing, after it emerged that it has no control group.

A better-known, separate Department of Health and Social Care study involved some participants self-isolating and others being allowed to take daily tests instead after being selected at random.

Deeks, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, speaking in a personal capacity said: “Without a control group what is this [workplace] study going to tell us? The question is also: what is the status of this alleged secret study which none of us knew about? It should have a name, a protocol, and approval from Public Health England’s ethics committee.

“Part of the problem is that the Department of Health have been quite secretive about their studies. They are just not transparent.”

Deeks said the workplace scheme was part of a pattern of government pilot events, which have included Euro 2020 and Wimbledon. “The government has also been doing a thing where they set up what they describe as a ‘pilot’ if they want something to happen,” he said.

“This was the case back in January as well in relation to schools. Rather than waiting for a proper scientific study to be done they call something a ‘pilot’ and because they are in charge of everything they appear to get away with it.”

Such an approach could be taken because the health secretary is in charge of testing, evaluation studies and the manufacture of test kits and also oversees the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), Deeks said.

The government was also grilled on Monday when the prime minister travelled to Chequers after being told he was a close contact of a Covid-positive case, the health secretary, Sajid Javid.

Johnson’s spokesperson gave different answers on the issue of when Johnson travelled from Downing Street to Chequers, first telling reporters it was at the “start of the weekend”, then Friday morning, then 3pm on Friday.

Separately, a letter released by the MHRA under the Freedom of Information Act made clear that lateral flow test kits of the type which Johnson would have used daily under the pilot scheme were not authorised for daily use unless part of an approved study.

The DHSC said 20 organisations were covered by the workplace pilot.

A union representing Border Force officers has criticised the scheme, which was set up in Manchester and Dover. The PCS spokesperson said: “The trial was extremely unpopular with our members who were put in unnecessary harm’s way by having to use public transport on their days off to come in to get tested. It was completely unworkable and staff preferred to self-isolate which is what the PM and chancellor should have done when they were pinged on the test-and-trace app.”