Boris ‘the liar’ Johnson’s non-apology to people living with long Covid at the Covid Inquiry has angered many people. The former PM’s dismissal of the disease as “bollocks” arguably led to the epidemic of debilitating chronic illness we’re now witnessing. However, is he solely to blame? Or was he a victim of psychiatric propaganda of the highest order that we now need to consign to the dustbin of medical history?
Johnson: sorry/not sorry
As the Canary previously reported, on his first day at the Covid Inquiry, Johnson couldn’t apologise properly to long Covid patients for calling their disease ‘bollocks’. Instead, the inference was that he was sorry that he got caught doing it. Johnson said:
I regret very much using that language and I should have thought about the possibility of future publication.
‘Thought about the possibility of future publication’? Translate that from ‘Johnson doublespeak’, and you get ‘I should have thought about whether I’d get caught‘.
However, while Johnson is undoubtedly a nasty, arrogant, and condescending piece of work – is he really solely to blame for the stigma around long Covid? Not really. We need to think of Johnson more as the monkey – because there are organ grinders who have directed him to this point of view in the first place.
ME: ground zero of ‘all in your head’
Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) is one of the ‘ground zeros’ when it comes to the ‘all in your head’ slander around chronic illness. Some people refer to ME as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). It is a debilitating and poorly-treated chronic, systemic neuroimmune disease that affects every aspect of the patient’s lives. You can read more about ME symptoms here.
The disease has been at the centre of various scandals for decades. These include medical professionals saying it was a psychological illness – that is, that it’s ‘all in people’s heads’. Spoiler alert: ME is in no way psychological. You can read the endless articles I’ve written showing this fact here.
However, these narrative have stuck – and entered the psyche of people like Johnson. This is partly because the idea of psychomatic illness is entrenched in the medical profession. However, it is also because of just who is pushing the ‘all in your head’ junk science. I say junk science because the fraudulent PACE Trial, which cemented the idea that ME was psychosomatic, was a near textbook case of it; that is:
faulty scientific information or research, especially when used to advance special interests.
PACE Trial: a hotbed of scientific crooks
In the case of PACE Trial, the Canary has reported extensively on how:
Overall, patients, advocates, politicians, and many medical professionals believe the PACE Trial was a con to keep ME as a psychological illness, and to deny people benefits and private health insurance. However, it is who is behind PACE Trial that is key to understanding just why people like Johnson lap up the ‘all in your head’ agenda for post-viral illness.
The people at the centre of PACE Trial were:
- Michael Sharpe – emeritus professor of psychological medicine at Oxford University.
- Trudi Chalder – professor of Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapy at King’s College, London.
- Peter White – former professor of psychological medicine at Queen Mary University of London, adviser to the Ministry of Defence and the government’s Chief Medical Officer.
Elitism versus hysterical patients
These three have been virulent in their defence of their junk science – even after it was widely debunked. Yet still, they get away with it in some circles like the Guardian. Why? It’s elitism. Sharpe, Chalder, and White have positions at some of the best universities in the UK; in the case of White, they’ve had the ear of government at times, and in the case of Sharpe their peers have repeatedly awarded them for their endeavours.
So, if it came down to the junk science of esteemed professors versus ‘hysterical’ patients – the junk scientists will always win. PACE Trial has directly and indirectly instructed the thinking of countless medical professionals, from consultants to local GPs – to the severe detriment of chronically ill patients whose symptoms they perceive as ‘medically unexplained’. This include ME, but also countless other conditions where a part-psychiatric approach is now considered normal.
However, there are plenty of respected medical professionals who don’t believe ME (and long Covid for that matter) are ‘all in people’s heads’. Therefore, this still doesn’t entirely explain Johnson’s views. So, how is it that the former PM has lapped up this narrative hook, line, and sinker?
Wessely: the high priest of junk science
Enter Simon Wessely. Now, him and Johnson don’t appear to be acquainted. However, Wessely is one of the highest-profile medical professionals in the UK. He reviewed the Mental Health Act for Theresa May’s Tory government; the NHS recently appointed him to its board, and David Cameron’s coalition government awarded him his ‘sir’ for services to military healthcare. It is that last point which is crucial.
Johnson’s ‘Gulf War syndrome stuff’ comment about long Covid didn’t come from his Eton-addled brain by itself. Wessely is of course the person who (with Chalder, no less) perpetuated the myth that Gulf War syndrome was somehow psychomatic – in the same way the pair helped ME to become ‘all in people’s heads’. As he said himself:
the transmission of rumour was a significant part of the very construction of the condition itself.
We now know this is – to coin a phrase – ‘bollocks’. Gulf War syndrome was caused by the release of Sarin gas, as researchers concluded in May 2022. Yet for over 30 years, high priest Wessely and his junk science acolytes perpetuated the falsehood that the disease was ‘all in people’s heads’ – and it stuck in Johnson’s, too. Again, we have to ask the question why?
Elitism pervades the establishment – both political and medical
It’s elitism, once more. Wessely is a world-renowned psychiatrist who has had a glittering career for decades. Gulf War syndrome has been one of the most highly-publicised yet unexplained diseases in living memory, making repeated newspaper headlines. Wessely gave the military, governments, veterans, and the wider public, revelatory answers – and hope.
Combine these things, and mud sticks. It would seem impossible that a man like Wessely could have built a career off the back of demonstrable nonsense. Therefore, his opinions must be correct.
Ironically, it is the phrase that Wessely used himself to describe Gulf War syndrome that, when adjusted, best describes his affect on the medical profession, and wider society’s, opinion of chronic illnesses that have no known cause:
the transmission of rumour was a significant part of the very construction of the… [falsehood] itself.
As a society, we are conditioned to believe that those who have reached the pinnacle of education and careers are somehow better than us mere mortals. We’re supposed to celebrate them and their alleged achievements. However, in the case of Wessely – and Johnson (and arguably many other leaders in their respective fields) – these people should not be revered.
Misplaced beliefs leaving the rest of us screwed
Their self-serving self-importance, coupled with a misplaced yet arrogant belief in their own abilities and ideas, make them dangerous to the rest of us. ME and Gulf War syndrome patients can testify to this – and sadly now, long Covid patients can, too.
However, Johnson is really only the monkey of the long Covid ‘bollocks’ trickery. Wessely was one of the most instrumental organ grinders of the now-failing notion of psychomatic illness – and clearly, even former PMs were dancing to the tune.
That’s not to say Johnson isn’t guilty of leaving millions of people disabled by long Covid through inaction, lies, and prejudice. However, his views are just another symptom of an illness that crooked psychiatrists have spent years fomenting. If one things comes out of the Covid Inquiry, it’s that the idea that illness can be ‘all in people’s heads’ is consigned to the dustbin of medical history.
Featured image via the Telegraph – YouTube