As people heap praise on Dr Jenny Harries, we’re reminded of her neck-breaking u-turn

Dr Jenny Harries & virus
Peadar O'Cearnaigh

On 29 March, England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said it could be “three to six months” or more before life in the UK returns to normal from the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

Dr Harries was praised for being “calm, collected and coolheaded”. Another commentator claimed she was ‘inspired’ by the “dignified” medical officer:

But some people must have been scratching their heads at all this, given Dr Harries’ position on dealing with the pandemic just a few weeks earlier. So others took to social media to remind us of her recent track record.

Large outdoor events

Earlier this month, Dr Harries said cancelling outdoor events wasn’t necessarily supported by science. This included gatherings such as the Cheltenham Festival horse racing event that took place between 10 and 13 March. Over 250,000 people attended:

On 11 March, prime minister Boris Johnson interviewed Harries. They discussed attendance at large sporting events. Johnson said other countries have:

banned big sporting events and they’ve stopped mass gatherings of one kind or other.

He asked her to explain why the medical advice was not to do the same “in this country”. Dr Harries replied:

in general, those sorts of events and big gatherings are not seen to be something which is going to have a big effect

The decision to allow Cheltenham to go ahead came in for widespread criticism. Even the tánaiste (Irish deputy prime minister) Simon Coveney criticised the UK government for allowing it to proceed. Some who attended Cheltenham since claim to be showing symptoms of the virus.

U-turn on schools

In the first half of March, Dr Harries supported the government decision to keep schools open. Meanwhile, schools across Europe began to close and some UK parents kept their kids at home. In a response to former cabinet minister Rory Stewart’s call to close schools, Dr Harries said she rejected [0:03m] it “on a scientific basis”:

But then from 20 March schools across the UK closed their doors until further notice.

The UK government got it wrong

The initial approach of Johnson’s government to the pandemic of creating a “herd immunity” was slammed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Finally that strategy appeared to change.

But still NHS staff aren’t equipped with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Some staff have had to buy DIY clothing to compensate. This is despite a claim by Dr Harries on 20 March that:

The country has a perfectly adequate supply of PPE.

A few days later she reiterated that “there is kit available to go around the country currently”:

Award-winning editor-in-chief of the Lancet Richard Horton called the lack of PPE equipment a “national scandal”. He said the government wasted time in beginning testing and getting PPE ready when it “knew in the last week of January that this [coronavirus] was coming”.

Getting it right

As The Canary has reported, not only does the government approach of moving from one strategy to another not inspire confidence, it could cost lives. So while the ‘honesty’ of predicting an effective six-month lockdown may be welcome now, British people needed action much sooner.

Now people need to know they can trust what leading figures say and do at this critical moment. Let’s hope the government and its advisers have finally got it straight.

Featured image via Twitter – Sky NewsFlickr – Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia, Inovações e Co

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  • Show Comments
    1. Perhaps it’s just me, but I get the impression that people are getting increasingly fed up with those who have epidemiology degrees from the University of Twitter (and are accountable to no one) constantly knocking those who have to try and follow the rapidly changing events and make the hard decisions – and eventually be accountable for them.

        1. The politicians are ultimately responsible, and will be accountable no later than December 2024.

          I also suspect that, especially if there is a change of government, there will be the usual multi million pound interminable public inquiry which will , with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, hang someone out to to dry.

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