Silencing the scientists?

May 10, 2020

The British epidemiologist said to have steered the government towards lockdown is forced to resign

Dr Neil Ferguson.

Dear All,

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, scientific advice and input has been key in terms of government decisions and public response. Yet, we have seen over the past few months, how in this crisis the science has often been at odds with the politics. And last week when the epidemiologist who is said to have steered British Prime Minister Boris Johnson away from the Herd Immunity policy was forced to resign, after an expose by the Daily Telegraph, a number of questions were raised about whether this may be part of a wider attempt to downplay scientific voices.

The ‘expose’ - and subsequent resignation - of Dr Neil Ferguson came on the same day that the UK reached the awful landmark of having the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe (overtaking even Italy), so that shocking fact was, rather conveniently, overshadowed by the Telegraph’s ‘report’. It also ‘broke’ just before the American president, that great proponent of ending the lockdown and ‘taking our country back’, announced that he was winding down the coronavirus task force in the US (a decision he appeared to reverse the next day). As if on cue, the British chancellor then announced that he was preparing to end the coronavirus furlough scheme (in which the government subsidises wages) from July.

Obviously, government subsidies cannot continue indefinitely but the UK government messaging now appears to be focusing more and more on trying to end the lockdown as soon as possible. There seems to be a conscious attempt by the government to build up a narrative of ‘the lockdown ends soon’ while aggressively dodging scrutiny and deflecting any difficult questions regarding the way it has handled the crisis. The ministers’ tone at daily briefings and press interviews has become more aggressive while the scientific advisors seem rather more subdued.

Difficult questions for the government have included a story in the Guardian which reported that the PM’s senior advisor, the political strategist Dominic Cummings, was attending Sage meetings even though these are supposed to be about science, not politics. Sage is the acronym for the Scientific Group for Emergencies, a group consisting of specialists who ensure that ‘coordinated scientific advice is made available to decision makers’ in the Cabinet. Cummings is a controversial figure: he is regarded as a sort of ‘evil genius’ spin doctor and ruthless manipulator who has been associated with data manipulation and right-wing election campaigns and who is also alleged to have been connected to various under-the-radar smear campaigns. The questions about him were deflected (and it’s not clear if he continues to attend) but with the departure of Professor Ferguson from Sage, an outspoken voice for the epidemiology (putting it above the politics in the advisory group) has, effectively, now been silenced.

Professor Ferguson resigned because he was discovered to have breached the lockdown rules he himself was insisting on for the general public. The Telegraph (referred to as Torygraph by detractors) exposed that a woman referred to as Ferguson’s ‘secret, married lover’ had visited his house on at least two occasions (the last on April8). Not only this, but they also chose to name the woman despite the fact that she is not a public figure, and also to splash a huge photo of her across the front page. This information cannot be deemed, in any way, to be in the public interest - it simply adds salacious detail to the story and humiliates and sidelines the professional involved. If you subscribe to the theory that the story was a ‘takedown’ of a critic, a template for strategists may have been the case of the Scottish chief medical officer in early April (for breaching lockdown rules). The incident also follows concerted smear campaigns against another (very outspoken) public health expert, Professor John Ashton, who has been critical of the government’s handling of the crisis.

There is no doubt that Professor Ferguson breached the government’s Covid-19 guidelines on social distancing but so, perhaps, did another high-profile figure at the helm in this crisis: Boris Johnson. On the day (March 3) that the PM was briefed by Sage about the importance of a public message against shaking hands, he boasted to a press conference that he was “continuing to shake hands.”

So much for advice. And so much for the science…

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

COVID-19: Silencing the scientists?