The UK government’s half truths are dangerous, but the greater threat is when scientific and medical professionals tolerate them, says Bing Jones
Covid-19 is thriving as our government steadily loses public trust. The UK is seeing over a thousand covid-19 deaths a day, our policies are failing, and we are doing as badly as anywhere. Meanwhile, our government consoles us with rosy pictures of vaccination bringing normal life within months. It’s another optimistic projection disguising negligent failure.
Failures veiled by hopeful half truths have been our diet for nearly a year now. Yet telling only half the truth erodes public trust. Vaccination will of course be a relief for many people. But it will not be enough on its own and cannot disguise the inexcusable fact that we still lack effective, basic public health tools. We don’t test effectively, find enough contacts, or support enough people to isolate. Basic principles of science and public health are routinely ignored, distorted, or manipulated by a government seduced by new technology and privatisation. The media and many professions passively collude. We have allowed the government to get away with half truths, unproven technology, and bad science. Both the media and scientific and medical professionals can see the poor public health policy and bad science happening before us, but too often fail to call these obvious government deficiencies out. It is as if we have all come to expect no more than half truth and lies. And a half truth is a lie.
Allowing different households to gather at Christmas was obviously going to be disastrous. “Moonshot” mass testing has never been properly evaluated and may even be making matters worse, according to some experts. NHS Test and Trace does not actively seek out those who need tests, it fails to reach their contacts in a timely way, and then fails to isolate both cases and contacts effectively. Our inability to isolate effectively is a central, enduring disgrace that is too often ignored by reporters and doctors, who are happier to talk about future plans and new solutions rather than inadequate basic practice. Either this government has been advised badly by professionals, their advice has been ignored, or a mixture of both.
Much of the NHS is working inhumanly hard because of these policy failures. It’s time for those who can see defective policy to speak out against half truth and misinformation.
The new covid-19 variant is now exploiting our public health failures. We are defended only by a full house of ineffective tools, while erosion of trust has diminished the effectiveness of lockdown. We have good surveillance but we don’t have the tools to use the data. In March we had no proper strategy, a delayed lockdown, disabled local services, inadequate personal protective equipment, discharge to care homes, and we gave up on contact tracing. Now, we still have no strategy; have only flawed, slow testing (waiting for patients to come forward is so silly); flawed, slow tracing; a gross lack of support for people to isolate adequately; schools that have not been made safe; and a dubious Moonshot mass testing programme. Test and trace is heavily privatised and local services have only token powers. We know the challenges are enormous and changing continuously. It’s obviously essential to innovate and be optimistic. But what is inexcusable is to fail to evaluate novel technology, fail to audit, and most of all to fail to do what we know works.
The prospect of mass vaccination is a great relief but there are multiple uncertainties about its rollout. It is an unprecedented task as we are overwhelmed by the new B117 variant. Many people are keen, but there is also mistrust and existing vaccine hesitancy to overcome (around a quarter of doctors, for example, don’t get the flu vaccine). People in poorer communities have been reluctant to get tested and may be reluctant to get vaccinated. Delivery, batch testing, side effects, and escape mutants are potential problems and we are uncertain how the vaccine will affect transmission and death. These are all well understood. It’s yet another irresponsible half truth to imply that vaccination will bring us “back to normal” in months.
While vaccination is rolled out, we must insist on correcting basic public health deficiencies as recommended by Independent Sage: to find, test, trace, isolate, and support, none of which function well at present. Medical and science professionals and the media alike must expose half truths. They must then speak the full truth; object to half truth; and, if necessary, refuse to cooperate and even resign.
No one wants to rock the boat. Our healthcare workers are heroic and we may yet be able to immunise two million people a week. We will get through covid. But government misrepresentation is a cancerous threat to modern society that must be excised for the sake of this pandemic and future crises. Covid-19 is bad but it is nothing compared to the public health and wider societal challenges that the climate crisis will inevitably bring. Covid pre-empts and is part of the climate crisis, but in terms of the long term risks to society, it is tiny.
Any government addicted to half truth is dangerous. But an even greater threat is for scientific and medical professionals to tolerate these falsehoods. We must learn to speak the whole truth.
Bing Jones, former associate specialist in haematology, Sheffield.
Competing interests: none declared.