2021-09-06 16:44:39 UTC
Government coercion of experts is alarming
Trusted institutions have been put at risk by a dangerous preference for
action over deliberation
6 September 2021 * 7:00am
Placeholder image for youtube video: PYOyFDejqfk
Government yet to decide on vaccinating healthy 12- to 15-year-olds,
says Nadhim Zahawi
Who would you choose to decide whether your children should receive a
new vaccine: an independent committee of 16 clinicians and professors of
medicine with a 60-year record, or the soon-to-be-ex Education Secretary
OK, that*s too easy. Politicians will inevitably overrule their own
expert advice from time to time * indeed, many of those loudly
applauding the refusal by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and
Immunisation to recommend vaccinating healthy 12 to 15-year-olds would
no doubt have wanted the Government to pay less attention to experts
such as Professor Neil Ferguson earlier in the pandemic. In a democracy,
politicians make the final decisions, and that*s as it should be.
But there*s something about the brazen way political pressure has been
applied to the experts in this case that seems to cross a line, and
reveals just how much our institutions have been diminished during this
pandemic. Unlike a lockdown, which is clearly a broad societal decision,
evaluating whether children should receive a new vaccine really does
seem like it should be protected from the whims of politicians.
The JCVI has operated in various forms since 1963, when it evolved out
of the advisory board for polio immunisation. Even in the 1960s * hardly
a high point of establishment transparency * it was considered sensible
to devolve such questions to a board of independent experts. Not only
should you get better decisions but, for something as sensitive and
vulnerable to fear campaigns as vaccinations, it would reassure people a
proper process had been followed.
Fast-forward to 2021 and the stakes are even higher: trust is low and
conspiracy theories are more popular than ever. The very worst thing
would be for the Government to go through the motions of due process
while flagrantly engineering the decision they want via loopholes and
Pravda-esque linguistic contortions. Unfortunately, this is exactly what
While the JCVI was still deliberating, it was briefed to newspapers that
the PM himself was determined to start vaccinating teenagers immediately
*amid mounting frustration with the scientific advisers*. Williamson
openly told the BBC that *we want to get on with it*. The committee took
the unusual step of responding to this interference, telling journalists
they wouldn*t be *bounced by politicians*.
Can there be any doubt that the inclusion of a get-out clause in this
otherwise defiant letter, suggesting that the chief medical officers
should make the final decision, was influenced by this political
pressure? Within hours, the Health Secretary had written to the CMOs of
the four nations asking them to *consider the matter from a broader
perspective* and return with a determination *as soon as possible*. In
other words: come back with a different decision, chaps, and make it snappy.
As for this mysterious *broader perspective* that goes beyond health
reasons, many parents may simply find it confusing. The idea seems to be
that vaccinating teenagers will reduce transmission in schools, which in
turn will reduce the need for groups to be sent home, and so justifies
jabbing teens on education grounds. But, as the JCVI concluded, *any
impact on transmission may be relatively small, given the lower
effectiveness of the vaccine against infection with the delta variant*.
No one in government has addressed this central objection.
Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi*s tour of the television studios on
Sunday only added to the unsettling atmosphere. He unequivocally assured
one network that, whatever the decision on vaccines, parents would have
final consent, then told another that 12 to 15-year-olds could override
their parents if they were deemed *competent to do so*. Which
12-year-olds are competent to overrule their parents, minister? If the
goal were to maximise paranoia and uncertainty, it would be hard to
design more contradictory postures than these.
A dangerous new wisdom is forming, which views action as always better
than inaction. It is reinforced by a popular narrative about the
pandemic, that our errors were mostly in acting too slowly and
deliberating too much. In this view, long-standing rules and
institutions of liberal democracies have been demoted to fussy obstacles
that prevent us from replicating the successes of the
command-and-control governments of Asia.
But action can be every bit as damaging as inaction. Ask Matt Hancock,
whose action-hero emptying of hospitals at the start of the pandemic
certainly made things worse; or the Indians whose lives were upturned by
their government*s pointless and draconian early lockdown. To ram
through vaccinations for teenagers on grounds other than health is
itself a risk * imagine the impact of a single tragic adverse reaction
to the jab in this scenario.
Sometimes the wisest thing, as the JCVI suggests, really is to wait and see.
This email has been checked for viruses by AVG.
This email has been checked for viruses by AVG.