Private parties

August 9, 2020

Virologists express concern about the government’s virus testing decisions

Dear All,

Why are we no longer shocked by the terrible behaviour of our legislators and leaders?

Political polarisation and the rise of right-wing leaders across the globe has somehow made us less and less willing to subject those in public eye to proper scrutiny. Most of our outrage is determined by our political biases and now objectivity is a framework we seem to have forgotten how to apply.

In Britain for example, every day that goes by it really does seem as if we have all ‘drunk the kool-aid.’ For those unfamiliar with the latter expression it refers to the followers of American cult leader Jim Jones who persuaded almost a thousand people (including children) to drink a flavoured beverage (Kool-Aid or perhaps Flavour Aid) which had been laced with cyanide in what the cult leader referred to as an act of ‘revolutionary suicide’. Today the expression that originated in the gruesome event in Jonestown has come to refer to so blindly aligning oneself with a cause that you lose any faculty to reason, be objective or see the flaws in the actions of your leader.

In Britain these days outrage at the behaviour of those running the government or their policies doesn’t seem to last more than a few days. Thus Boris Johnson can nominate all sorts of dodgy individuals to the Houses of Lords without batting an eyelid even if these individuals include a Russian oligarch with a father who was in the KGB, various wealthy people who were party donors and various other people who helped Tories to enrich themselves further. The prime minister’s unpopular advisor Dominic Cummings was found to have brazenly broken all lockdown rules and violated all public health advice at the height of the epidemic, yet he refused to resign and the PM refused to ask him to step down. The government keeps insisting pubs must be open and that people should all eat out ‘to support the hospitality sector’ yet cases of the Covid-19 have started going up again and local lockdowns are imposed almost every other day.

In addition to all this the government still does not have a reliable testing or test-and-trace system in place to try and stop the virus from spreading. Although news outlets cover these issues regularly, there’s not enough outrage in the public at the mismanagement. Also, the government consists of people with very thick skins which are a great advantage for them because this has made them immune to both any sense of shame and any sort of remorse.

The way that Boris Johnson’s government dispensed with any scientists whose advice they didn’t like has been shocking. If the government didn’t like what they were saying (things based on science and data) many individuals were sidelined, even smeared. Take the case of the epidemiologist Professor Neal Ferguson: in April The Telegraph published a scoop revealing that Ferguson, who had had the virus, had been visited at his home by his girlfriend at a time when visits between different homes were not allowed. Fergusons’s reputation was dragged through the mud and he had to step down from his role in the government’s scientific advisory group, SAGE. Yet Cummings and his wife, who had both had the virus also violated the rules during the same period and travelled all the way from London to Durham, visited public places and stayed in different locations and then were even untruthful and evasive about their actions. Yet Cummings still has his job and Ferguson, whose scientific advice was often at odds with what the government wanted to do, has been sidelined.

But now what is shocking is the revelation that the government awarded testing contracts to private firms rather than entrusting testing to the scientists or experts in the health service. A group of Britain’s leading virus experts (almost 70 clinical virologists) have written to England’s chief scientific advisor about this saying that they wanted to express ‘concern over lack of engagement by policymakers with clinical virology expertise in the UK in the management of the… Covid-19.” They point out how in the midst of an epidemic, the skills and expertise of the virologists have been underused and underrepresented.

These virology experts hold that in this crisis it seems that the government is making decisions on ideological grounds. These experts, who all work in public health, say that the government seems to think that only the private sector can rise to the challenge of Covid-19, but the problem is that many of the firms contracted to do the testing have neither the expertise nor the systems to link into and feed data to the NHS and public health authorities. They also say that although the government made a great fanfare about the rapid tests their chosen private companies would offer, such tests were already being used by public sector scientists.

The UK Clinical Virology Network’s letter was sent a month ago and, till the end of last week at least the government had not even bothered to respond to it.

More Kool-Aid anybody?

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

Private parties