Ross Clark

‘Please don’t do a hit job’: An interview with Devi Sridhar

The 'Preventable' author on Boris, Trump and changing tack on zero Covid

'Please don’t do a hit job': An interview with Devi Sridhar
Devi Sridhar (Credit: YouTube)
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Of all the scientists who became household names during the pandemic, few divide opinion as much as Devi Sridhar. The Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh turned adviser to the Scottish government and Guardian columnist is, according to your point of view, either a voice of reason who could have prevented the bungling at Westminster and steered Britain through the pandemic with a death toll as low as that of New Zealand, or a hectoring advocate of an impossible ‘Zero Covid’ strategy. She complains of having received hate mail – a baleful occupation hazard for many in public life, but perhaps all the more shocking if you were previously little known outside academia. Now she says she wants to step back from media work, writing: 'If someone else can say what I’d say, I’d prefer they be the ones to say it.'

That is not entirely consistent, however, with publishing a book, Preventable: how a Pandemic Changed the World & How to Stop the Next One – along with undertaking the usual round of media interviews to publicise it. The Spectator, it seems, is not her favourite bedtime reading – she asserts in the book that 'many of my comments or observations were deliberately misquoted or misrepresented by right-wing outlets such as the Mail and The Spectator', something which she claims was part of 'larger attempt to discredit the majority Scottish government and an increasingly popular Sturgeon'. Nevertheless, she does agree to do a Zoom interview, albeit while begging me: 'Please don’t do a hit job'.

While Sridhar denies a political affiliation with the SNP, we learn from the book a little more about her closeness to Nicola Sturgeon. Sridhar, it turns out, is a fitness fanatic who hankers after 'visible abs and a six pack' and who, when she revealed she was using spare time during lockdown to qualify as a personal fitness trainer, says the First Minister asked to become her first client. It isn’t entirely clear whether this business arrangement actually went ahead – she still hasn’t quite completed her qualification – and Sridhar excused herself for a meeting before we could get onto this point.

But the more important claim in Preventable is that the UK could have saved many lives by adopting a Covid elimination strategy. By this she means a more serious effort at tracking and tracing those with the disease, combined with greater control of borders. Had the government taken these measures more seriously, she asserts, repeated lockdowns could have been avoided.

Preventable went off to the printers in August 2021, with a brief afterword written in early January. At the time she was writing it was still possible to praise what Sridhar calls China’s successful containment of the virus and to set that against what she calls the 'blind optimism' of Boris Johnson. But would she still have been such an advocate for a Covid elimination strategy had she been writing now, with China stuck down a blind alley of repeated lockdowns? 

'As soon as it became clear that the path out of the pandemic is mass vaccination I changed my mind,' she says. She no longer advocates a zero Covid strategy, but argues that it was clear as early as March 2020 that vaccine trials were promising – and that an elimination strategy should have been used until those vaccines became available.

But was it really possible to snuff out Covid in Britain to achieve death rates as low as in New Zealand, a country she repeatedly praises? Sridhar calls Britain as an ‘outlier’ for keeping its borders open during the first wave – although, as I point out, the UK government was in this merely following the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which began the pandemic dead against border closures, regarding them as xenophobic. 'No-one is perfect,' she then says. 'At the time the WHO was following an assumed wisdom on travel bans. Travel restrictions are something the WHO will be looking at for future pandemics'.

She does make the point, however, that banning flights from Wuhan, or even from the whole of China, would not have been sufficient – as passengers would have still travelled anyway, routing via third countries. 'You would have had to shut off flights to everywhere.' She also says: 'If I’d been there in February 2020 saying ‘stop’ all the flights to Heathrow, people would have thought I was mad.' That does rather beg the question: was there really any possibility for Britain, at the crossroads of the world, to follow a Covid elimination policy? The UK was faced with a virus which was spreading asymptomatically and which may even have been set in Britain before Covid had been identified.

Sridhar’s most eye-catching assertion, which she repeats a couple of times in her book, is that 'Scotland in the summer of 2020 practically eliminated Covid-19'. This mirrors comments made by Nicola Sturgeon which went on to feed the narrative that the SNP government was succeeding where Boris Johnson’s government had failed, and that Scotland only suffered a resurgence thanks to lax policy in Westminster. This narrative also led to SNP activists setting up a ‘border control’ on the A1 trying to repel English holidaymakers.

Sridhar’s claim, however, is not supported by her fellow Scottish government adviser Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. 'Scotland was not close to elimination at any stage during this epidemic,' he told MSPs in February 2021. While official figures showed very low numbers of daily infections, he said, many cases among young people were not being picked up because few people were being tested. The lineages of the virus which were present in Scotland in the spring of 2020 were still there in the autumn surge, he said, proving that the virus had been in circulation all the way through.

What does Sridhar think of that? 'Mark and I disagree,' she says, adding that she believes the evidence shows strains of the virus presented in the autumn had been reimported to Scotland (and indeed to England, via returning holidaymakers). 'What does bother me is that his evidence is seen as more valuable because he’s older and he’s a man,' she adds.

This seems a little unreasonable, given that Sridhar’s scientific opinions have been granted vastly more coverage than those of Woolhouse, who is definitely not a household name. Her reply perhaps explains why Sridhar has become such a controversial figure. While it was possible to listen to Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Jonathan Van-Tam for hours without ever picking up where their political sympathies lie – and without ever hearing criticism of those in power – Sridhar is never slow to let her personal views be known, whether it be on the character or politics of our leaders. 

She struggles to put any blame on the World Health Organisation, not even over the farcical press conference in February 2021 when a WHO team all but ruled out the possibility of a laboratory leak being responsible for Covid 19. It did so on the somewhat flimsy grounds that laboratory leaks were 'rare' (even though the original SARS virus had leaked on two occasions). Wasn’t the WHO just playing China’s tune? 

'What was the other option when they need to get a mission in (to China) at any stage?' Is the WHO too close to China? 'I would say the WHO is too close to the United States as well.' The organisation, she says, has become a 'beating horse'.

On the other hand, Sridhar loses few opportunities in her book to beat the hide of Boris Johnson, suggesting that he failed to take Covid seriously at first because he 'was distracted at work with Brexit and a complicated personal situation'. 

Donald Trump comes in for repeated stick. Yet he earns little credit from Sridhar for sanctioning Operation Warp Speed – which helped give us two functioning vaccines in record quick time – or for his early decision to block flights from Europe. Trump was eviscerated by the EU at the time and was going against WHO advice, although he was doing exactly as Sridhar now advocates: closing borders to slow the spread of the virus.

'Populist leadership styles from the US, UK and Brazil,' she writes, 'struggled to cope with the need during the pandemic for solid and cautious governance.' Those are the words of the Guardian columnist, not the scientist – the latter of whom might point out that Britain has ended up with far from the highest Covid death rate in Europe, and that Scotland ultimately has ended up little different from Britain. Indeed, had she waited a few more weeks to write her afterword, she would have had to deal with a Scotland where, in spite of the continuation of compulsory mask-wearing, one in eleven of the population had been infected in a single week.

Sridhar may be right about some things. She condemns, for example, Sage’s 'obsession with modelling'. But it is hard to argue from the vantage point of spring 2022, rather than summer 2020, that Scotland under her guidance and Sturgeon’s leadership has made a better job of fighting the pandemic than has England. With that assertion goes some of the basis of Sridhar’s celebrity. Now virtually the whole world – with the exception of hermit kingdom China – is living with Covid, being a former pin-up for Zero Covid is no longer quite such good box office.

Written byRoss Clark

Ross Clark is a leader writer and columnist who, besides three decades with The Spectator, writes for the Daily Telegraph and several other newspapers

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