'Moral emptiness & epidemiological stupidity'

It's herd immunity. Just say the words.

Welcome to Keeping the Receipts— a newsletter from the Citizens, written this week by Carole Cadwalladr. You can read about the mission behind this here.

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The policy that dare not speak its name

For so many people, this has been a difficult, difficult week.

This is the chief executive of an NHS trust:

This is a random person who came into my DMs:

This is Dr Rachel Clarke on the pressures she and her NHS colleagues are already facing:

This is an Observer colleague who has written previously and movingly about the damage long Covid has had on her life:

There are so many people who are voiceless and scared and angry right now. I’m putting them first in this newsletter because that’s exactly the opposite of what the UK government is doing.

It is hurtling toward a “Freedom Day” that will likely be marked by more cases per day than we’ve experienced at any previous time in this pandemic. It has failed even to mention the 2.2 million people who are clinically extremely vulnerable and have been given no information whatsoever. Or the risks to the unvaccinated - children and young people - of a little-understood, debilitating long-term illness that attacks major organs, including the brain, that will affect 10-15% of them.

Even for people who are lucky enough to be in none of those categories, it’s been a difficult week. Because we have been here before. And this week has so clearly and acutely brought back painful memories of March 2020.

We are – even more now than we were then – caught up in a nationalistic bubble.

Today the news is England, England, England. And this self-reinforcing prism of national exceptionalism is a gift to a government that used a self-reinforcing prism of national exceptionalism to justify the calamitous decisions it made back in March 2020.

Because, then as now, we are an outlier. And, then as now, we are failing to follow WHO advice, as Dr Mike Ryan, an executive director at the organisation, made abundantly clear this week.

This is what he was asked by a BBC reporter at a press conference:

“Can I ask Dr Ryan about the UK change of policy because I think it’s being watched around the world?”

And this is what he answered:

“The logic of more people being infected is better is, I think, logic that has proven its moral emptiness and its epidemiological stupidity.”

A day later, another WHO senior leader spoke out. The strategy the UK is following is, she makes clear, “immoral, unethical & non-scientific”:

We have ignored WHO’s warnings before. And we have been gaslit by this government before. Test, test, test, WHO said as the UK government abandoned testing.

What’s amazing about the current moment is that the government is not just defying international norms and best practice again, it’s using the same reality-bending techniques to achieve them. Boris Johnson told the Liaison Committee that the strategy informing his policy was not herd immunity. “That’s not the consideration,” he told the committee even as the Department of Health has explicitly said that it is following “a hybrid immunity” strategy, of vaccination and infection.

Which is exactly what herd immunity is: population immunity. And there are only two routes to it: vaccination and infection. And since the UK government is not vaccinating under-18s, infection it is.

The most amazing aspect of Boris Johnson’s rhetorical strategy is that it works. These denials are blatantly untrue, as even his own government’s health department affirms, but they also work. This is the third week in a row that we’ve used the words “herd immunity” in the headline of this newsletter.

And we have been investigating and litigating the suppression of data about the spread of the Delta variant in schools, which is what has led us here, from our first newsletter eight weeks ago and every week since.

Yet the words “herd immunity” are still not being spoken out loud. Or if they are, as Deepti Gurdasani did here, they’re challenged. “The government doesn’t say it’s seeking herd immunity,” the BBC presenter tells her.

We’ve been here before too. As Dominic Cummings points out, the government performed mass hypnosis on the nation’s press by denying it was seeking herd immunity even after its advisors went out into the press and said they were.

It’s a profound relief that the import of what the government is doing has broken through into the mainstream media this week, even if the Labour front bench remains shockingly silent, a no doubt strategic decision until the football is over, but one of extraordinary moral cowardice. But there have been important editorials in the Guardian and, today, the Observer and op-eds like this powerful one in the Financial Times. The alarm that scientists on Independent SAGE and elsewhere have been desperately trying to raise for weeks is finally being heard. The issue of long Covid in children is finally being covered. The voices of the clinically vulnerable are at least being given a platform.

And yet, it’s still not being called by its name: herd immunity, herd immunity, herd immunity.

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When Dominic Lawson is agreeing with you…

You know there is something very odd happening when you find yourself in agreement with climate denier Dominic Lawson. But he’s in the Times today pointing out that the government’s bizarre denials on herd immunity have no basis in fact.

He also refers back to what happened in March 2020 when it was Nigel Farage - of all people - who, in a profoundly dislocating experience, was one of the most powerful voices to confront the government on it at the time.

Lawson makes it clear that he agrees with the government’s strategy but that its fear of political fall-out is why it’s continuing to make these ridiculous denials:

This debacle had the merit of illustrating how repelled the British had been by the concept of letting the virus burn itself out by spreading throughout the population, while (though never clearly setting out how) “shielding the elderly and vulnerable”. And it helps explain why the government continues to treat the phrase “herd immunity” as if it were the electrified third rail of pandemic policy.

And yet it works. Which is why we have to keep saying it: herd immunity, herd immunity, herd immunity.

What we’re doing (& how you can help)

We can’t trust this government not to kill us.

It’s understandable that in March 2020, the sheer shock and terror of what we were facing meant that most people felt we had no choice but to trust our leaders to protect us. They were flanked by men of science. They sounded authoritative. They killed 152,000 of us.

Sixteen months on, we have no excuse. Of everything that’s been said this week, Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of the Lancet, perhaps put it most forcefully:

And, in what felt like a significant move, he called out by name the Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, and Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty:

“It’s a profound sadness to see people who I respect in many many ways such as Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty allowing themselves to stand next to a prime minister and give their apparent support to this appallingly politically driven position.”

Civil servants advise and ministers decide. But they’ve been used as meat shields for politically motivated policies since the start of the pandemic. Who can forget this:

Speaking up has never been more important. And to have 122 scientists and doctors publish a letter in the Lancet this week calling the government’s policy “a dangerous and unethical experiment” and to have other trusted voices like Professor Trish Greenhalgh and the honorary vice president of the British Medical Association, Kailash Chand, speak at the summit about it alongside Richard Horton and members of Independent SAGE including the ex-Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, was, in all honesty, a relief.

And it was a relief too having backbenchers of principle - Green MP, Caroline Lucas, Labour MPs Richard Burgon, Debbie Abrahams and Barbara Seeley - listening and responding to what they were saying.

It’s why our small team dropped everything else we were doing this week to help organise it. This was in equal parts gratifying and depressing. Gratifying in that it helped the story finally break through:

Depressing in that this was the culmination of two months’ of work that we’ve done with the lead author of the letter, clinical epidemiologist, Deepti Gurdasani. To say nothing of the 15 months of graft we have put into Independent SAGE.

With Deepti, we have tried to expose the spread of the Delta variant through the biggest reservoirs of unvaccinated people in Britain - schools - and challenge the government on it over and over again.

Because the situation we find ourselves in didn’t have to happen. Independent SAGE’s very first report stressed the need for border controls. And it was a deliberate policy of Number 10 to suppress the data on the spread of the Delta variant in schools. Just as it suppressed the data on the decision to remove mitigations. And refused to supply answers even to our legal letters.

But it reaffirms our commitment to what we’re doing: our full-frontal approach to government accountability. We failed. We continue to fail. We will keep trying.

And people are listening. All through this pandemic, we’ve seen the public realise what is happening long before the government will admit it. And a huge number of people watched this week’s summit, 34,000 on YouTube, another 60,000 on Twitter and many tens of thousands more have seen the clips.

It underlines why we’re doing what we’re doing. Because we believe that a citizen-led approach is all we have. As Caroline Lucas said at the summit, the political system is broken, there is no accountability and this has profound implications for both our democracy and our public health.

On a personal level, I don’t mind admitting that I have found this a difficult week. There’s an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness in the face of a government that has lied and obfuscated and suppressed data and made mistakes that have led to thousands of deaths and is set once again on a policy that so many credible, authoritative voices say is morally empty and epidemiologically stupid, even as it’s reported that PHE is investigating a possible new variant in the north east.

But I don’t know what to do other than keep trying. Thank you for your help and support. Without it, we could never have kept going.

Carole x

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