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Rebels with a cause – a clear Sage alternative

14 May, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Sir David King and Professor Allyson Pollock. Photo: allysonpollock.com

CAN the Covid-19 crisis be ended without sweeping changes in society?

Nobody at a “rebel” meeting of scientists quite held up a mirror to the crisis in that manner when they met on Tuesday afternoon but that is what the advice of one or two of them appeared to amount to.

Their alternative to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – which also shows its face at press conference gatherings – was set up, as I reported last week, because in their opinion there was too much secrecy about it: its membership was never made public and minutes of its meetings were not published.

At their first meeting last week – screened on YouTube – the rebels criticised the government for its late introduction of the lockdown as well as other failures.

It was mocked by the Daily Mail in a two-page spread as being left-wing, and ignored by the rest of the media.

But on Tuesday the media turned up pretty well represented for the 12 members of the rebel group – perhaps a reflection of a change in mood in Britain as the government’s new “stay alert” policy, signalling a planned end to the lockdown, has caused confusion and concerns among the pubic.

When a reporter asked what had they gained since they were set up, Sir David King replied, with a confident grin, that Sage membership was now being made public and that the question of politics didn’t arise – they were meeting as scientists in the “national interest”. He added, with a grin, that in public life one needed “a thick skin”.

Basically, the rebel scientists warned that further breakouts of the virus and more lockdowns are inevitable unless the government changes its strategy to combat it. King, in particular, warned it would be “foolish” to rely on the discovery of a successful vaccine.

The virus could only be suppressed if the government carried out an intense programme of testing, tracking and isolation at a local level involving hundreds of GPs and local health teams – a massively organised project along the lines successfully carried out in south-east Asian countries like South Korea, China and Singapore.

This would mean a decentralised approach to health as there had been years ago before changes were made to the National Health Service.

Professor Alyson Pollock, a public health expert, rebuked governments for their “disinvestment” in public health in the past few years – once there were 40 public health laboratories in the country, now there are only eight.

Shortage of lab facilities are thought to have led to the failure of the government to meet testing targets with ministers using “super labs” and ignoring smaller ones such as the facilities at the medical research centre, the Francis Crick Institute in Somers Town. But the Crick has carried out its own programme testing more than 10,000 hospital staff in north London.

Under the proposals set out in a 35-page report from the rebel group, along with 18 recommendations, testing and tracking would focus on high-risk places such as hospitals and care homes to serve as an early warning for a wider spread of testing if need be.

The need for a “local response” was stressed by Deenan Pillay, a professor of virology at University College London.

The report stressed the need to invest in such high-risk settings as care homes where thousands of elderly residents, along with a number of staff, have died from the disease. Equally, of course, there should be more investment in hospitals, prisons and immigrant detention centres.

And it is here we come to the heart of what is becoming as much a political crisis as a health crisis. To invest massively, say, in care homes that have been underfunded for years would involve a turnaround of government policy. Once, largely run by local authorities – though not very successfully – many of them have been handed over to private companies since the 1990s resulting in one public scandal after another – poor care, poor management, relying on low-paid, unqualified staff.

It would take the creation of a similar body as the NHS to modernise and revitalise care homes – a National Care Service. This is really what is needed but is this government able to accept the challenge?

The rebel group may have struck a chord with the public. The lockdown is beginning to fray at the edges with the public, as the government experts switch from one policy to another. So far, the opposition parties in Parliament have not risen to the challenge. It has taken a small group of scientists to challenge

Downing Street but the public appear to be listening to them. They come over as more genial and earnest than the government experts at the daily press conferences, and none of them is as telegenic and affable as King – and a friendly, camera face is a big plus.

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