The coronavirus pandemic has “unleashed state corruption on a grand scale” that is “harmful to public health”, a scathing editorial in medical journal the BMJ has said.
In an unusually political intervention for the highly-respected scientific publication, it warns that politicians are “suppressing science” and accuses the government of “opportunistic embezzlement”.
“The pandemic has revealed how the medical-political complex can be manipulated in an emergency – a time when it is even more important to safeguard science,” the article – penned by executive editor Kamran Abbasi – says.
‘Suppression of science’
It zeroes in on four examples of “suppression of science or scientists”. Firstly, the secrecy that initially surrounded the membership and deliberations of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), which were “initially secret until a press leak forced transparency”.
Referencing a bombshell story in the Guardian which revealed that Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s departed chief adviser, sat in on SAGE meetings, “the leak revealed inappropriate involvement of government advisers”, and exposed “under-representation from public health, clinical care, women and ethnic minorities”.
The editorial goes on to criticise Public Health England’s work on Covid-19 and inequality – “a section on ethnic minorities was initially withheld” – and the blocking of a government scientist “from speaking to media because of a ‘difficult political landscape’”.
Finally, it points the finger at Operation Moonshot, which “depends on immediate and wide availability of accurate rapid diagnostic tests” and “the questionable logic of mass screening”.
“Politicians often claim to follow the science, but that is a misleading oversimplification” Abbasi writes. “Science is rarely absolute. It rarely applies to every setting or every population. It doesn’t make sense to slavishly follow science or evidence.
“A better approach is for politicians, the publicly appointed decision makers, to be informed and guided by science when they decide policy for their public.
“But even that approach retains public and professional trust only if science is available for scrutiny and free of political interference, and if the system is transparent and not compromised by conflicts of interest.”
Referencing accusations of cronyism at the heart of the government’s pandemic response, the BMJ claims that Johnson and his ministers have relied “too heavily on scientists and other government appointees with worrying competing interests, including shareholdings in companies that manufacture Covid-19 diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines”.
Earlier this year it emerged that the UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has a £600,000 shareholding in drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline, which has been contracted to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.
“Government appointees are able to ignore or cherry pick science—another form of misuse—and indulge in anti-competitive practices that favour their own products and those of friends and associates,” the article says.
“Politicisation of science was enthusiastically deployed by some of history’s worst autocrats and dictators, and it is now regrettably commonplace in democracies.
“The medical-political complex tends towards suppression of science to aggrandise and enrich those in power. And, as the powerful become more successful, richer, and further intoxicated with power, the inconvenient truths of science are suppressed.
“When good science is suppressed, people die.”