James Kirkup

Why is a trade union spreading doubt over the vaccine roll out?

Why is a trade union spreading doubt over the vaccine roll out?
(Photo by LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)
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We hear a lot these days about the need for responsible discourse around the pandemic. People who put into the public domain arguments and claims that are not fully supported by evidence and which can have harmful consequences are being called to account for their actions.

Anyone with a public profile should always be willing to answer for their words. And in the midst of a public health emergency, it’s only reasonable that anyone with a voice in the public square should take care to avoid unduly eroding public trust in Covid mitigation measures by spreading baseless claims and sowing unjustified doubt.

This is especially true of the Covid vaccination programme. Getting and keeping public buy-in for vaccinations is a matter of life and death: someone who gets the vaccine is simply less likely to die of Covid than a similar person who does not. The loss of public confidence in vaccines can have grave consequences. Falling take-up of another vaccine, MMR, in some parts of the UK led in 2019 to Britain losing its status as a measles-free country. A disease that can kill children is circulating again because some people don’t trust the vaccine that can prevent it.

None of this is to say that vaccination programmes should be beyond criticism or scrutiny; far from it. Given its importance, it’s vital that the Covid jab be scrutinised properly and carefully. But given the importance of public trust in vaccination programmes, it’s equally important that such scrutiny is done carefully, soberly and on the basis of authority, expertise and evidence.

So what to make of the recent actions of the British Medical Association over the Covid vaccine? The BMA, just in case you’re misled by its name, is not a medical body. It is a medics’ body. It is a trade union.

In its own words, the BMA: 'represents, supports and negotiates on behalf of all UK doctors and medical students. We are member-run and led, fighting for the best terms and conditions as well as lobbying and campaigning on the issues impacting the medical profession.' As well as negotiating to make sure doctors are paid more, the BMA also helps its members work out what to do with their money, by connecting them to a dedicated firm of financial advisers. 

What the BMA does not do is carry out specialised medical or scientific research. Nor does it commission or publish such research. It does not, among its leadership and administrative staff, have specialist knowledge of any particular field of medical science. Of the four doctors who make up the BMA’s leadership team, three are GPs and one is a neurologist. 

In other words, the BMA is not an expert scientific or medical body. Which makes its recent actions over the Covid vaccination all the more puzzling.

As you might have seen over the weekend, the BMA recently wrote to professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, questioning the UK decision to wait 12 weeks between giving the first and second doses of the vaccine.

Mysteriously, this private letter about such a sensitive subject somehow found its way to the BBC. The Corporation then duly reported that: 'senior doctors [sic] are calling on England's chief medical officer to cut the gap between the first and second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.'

A highlight of the BBC’s extensive coverage, incidentally, was its statement that 'this is a private letter to Chris Whitty seen by the BBC and not a grandstanding press release.'

Yet despite the BMA’s aversion to grandstanding, Chaand Nagpaul of the BMA still made his way onto a BBC programme to tell viewers that — speaking as a senior doctor, remember — he could not be sure how long their first dose of vaccine would actually protect them. 'Obviously the protection will not vanish after six weeks, but what we do not know is what level of protection will be offered [after that point],' he told BBC Breakfast.

Scary stuff, eh? How worried should we be? How much confidence should we now have in that vaccine programme and that big decision to space out doses? I’m in no position to answer that question. Lacking the relevant expertise, I can only note that the decision has been made by the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, whose members do have such expertise.

According to the JCVI’s deputy chair, professor Anthony Harnden, the wider spacing of the doses will 'save many lives' by ensuring more people are at least partially vaccinated. Professor Anthony Finn of the JCVI says there’s 'absolutely rock-solid evidence that if you give a dose of the vaccine to more people you give them protection and save lives. There’s no real question about that.'

As for the BMA, professor Finn told the Today programme: 'I must be careful what I say about the BMA but… it would be a good idea to really understand the issues before making public pronouncements.'

Here’s another thought on the BMA intervention from Dr Anthony Cox. He’s a reader in Clinical Pharmacy and Drug Safety and head of Birmingham University’s Medicines Safety Research Group, which studies the safe use and management of medicines by patients and healthcare professionals. He says: 'The BMA intervention on delayed vaccination is probably one of the worst public health moves by a serious professional body in years. They’ve probably damaged vaccine confidence, and their own reputations in the long run.'

Journalistic Covid questioners who raised doubts about the science and strategy behind lockdowns and the rest are now facing a reckoning, called to answer for their words. That’s only right, but it also raises a question: if contrarian hacks should face the public pillory for Covid scepticism, what should happen to the doctors’ trade union for going on TV and undermining confidence in a vaccine programme on which lives depend?