Attempts to undermine scientists in a pandemic are shameful

E.g,: ‘Dodgy data’ used in push for tighter Covid restrictions

Health chief accused of disseminating misleading statistics on hospitalisations that overstated the risk from omicron – Telegraph 25 December


Professor Chris Whitty and other high-profile public health officials are tipped for new year honours, and rightly so. Sir Chris, as we may soon learn to call him, and his fellow scientists have been voices of calm, consideration and, above all, truth throughout the pandemic. They have told the public the facts as they emerged, framed them against scientific understanding – so far as it went – and counselled caution.

They were not always right, such as in their early dismissal of face-coverings, but their successes have greatly outweighed their failures. On the big calls, such as radically reducing social interaction, they have been proved right. Where there have been problems it has been because scientific guidance hasn’t been sufficiently heeded.

The rapid development of vaccines – in which Britain played a pioneering role, though it was the result of intensive international collaboration – is one of the great medical achievements of this or any age. Many lives have been saved by the dedication of scientists and clinicians, and by the public’s trust in them.

And yet, even as they are honoured by many, these public servants are also increasingly the subject of derision and abuse, and from people who should know better. Not only is this unkind and ungrateful, but the tendency to undermine public trust in science and medicine actively undermines the effort to control the spread of the virus, relieve pressure on the NHS and save lives.

Sometimes it is said, lazily, that the world has to “move on” and “learn to live with Covid” because of the damage public health measures can do to the economy. An uncontrolled spike in infections, however, will invariably do much more harm to jobs and businesses, even if the value of the lives of those killed – avoidably – by the virus can somehow be discounted to zero.

Worst of all, the political and media tide of criticism of the likes of Professor Whitty – or, most recently, Dr Jenny Harries – feeds the conspiracy theories and the cranks in the anti-vaxxers’ topsy-turvy world. If people want to believe that Omicron, for example, is “mild” and no worse than the common cold or a case of the sniffles, then of course they will be unwilling even to wear a face-covering or avoid crowded spaces. If it is supposed that independent scientists are responsible for “dodgy” data, and that they have some secret agenda to control peoples’ lives for the sake of it, then of course people will cease to take reasonable precautions to protect themselves and others. Careless talk costs lives.

It is shameful, then, that such language is being used against public servants whose only agenda is to protect public health. For issuing warnings about the ominous Omicron variant, officials are derided as “scaremongers”, “doomsday scientists” and “Dr Doom”. The modelling they have to use to assess policy options is supposedly always wrong, even though it is never a prediction of anything more than a range of possible outcomes if no action is taken and public behaviour remains unchanged. It is grotesque that someone such as Jacob Rees-Mogg tries to challenge Sir Patrick Vallance on epidemiology.

When, as now, it becomes clearer that a case of Omicron is less likely to lead to hospitalisation and is thus, on this definition, “milder” than the Delta variant, some media channels and politicians twist this into saying it is “mild”, meaning almost benign. It is not the common cold, however. In truth, it can still kill, and it will certainly add to the pressures on the NHS, which is struggling to catch up with the considerable backlog of non-Covid illnesses.

Spectrums of likelihood are turned into binary facts. So vaccines are said to be no help in preventing transmission, even though they may reduce transmission in some settings. Similarly, because people with vaccines do still succumb to Covid, it is claimed that the vaccines don’t work. It is sometimes said that natural immunity is superior to vaccines (and that vaccines are therefore useless). It is ludicrous, but such crude nonsense is stated with depressing frequency. Sad to say, it carries a good deal of political motivation.

Comparatively modest measures, such as Covid-status certificates or social distancing, are characterised as “lockdown”, when they are not. The cycle of new variants of concern and countermeasures is presented as never ending, yet Professor Whitty has explained, in his patient, honest way, that in around 18 months’ time, new and powerful polyvalent vaccines, as well as a range of improved treatments and techniques, will indeed mean that people can learn to live with the virus – but safely. With widespread polyvalent vaccination, variants will be less likely to be vaccine-evasive, and less likely to circulate freely if basic precautions are taken.

At the moment, it is not possible to learn to live with the coronavirus, because it is still too widespread and too deadly. Therefore, periodic intrusions on liberty to protect lives and to protect the economy will continue to be necessary, as will vaccinations and boosters, and not just in the rich world but globally. Beating Covid will need political leadership, perseverance and money, as well as clear, balanced messaging and honest debate through the media.

There is no need to shoot the messengers: all the scientists can do is point the way.