PHE boss criticises No10 for pursuing 'science by press release'

PHE boss criticises No10 for doing ‘science by press release’ in leaked emails showing nation’s top experts were left in the dark about December’s shock Kent variant announcement

  • Matt Hancock announced the emergence of the Kent variant in December
  • Dr Susan Hopkins agreed with colleagues claim it was ‘science by press release’
  • None of them had details about the variant until after Mr Hancock unveiled it
  • PHE said: ‘Dr Hopkins was absolutely not criticising the Government’ 

One of Public Health England’s top advisers has accused the Government of doing ‘science by press release’ by announcing things without telling its scientists. 

Dr Susan Hopkins, who has appeared alongside senior ministers in Downing Street press conferences throughout the pandemic, vented her frustration in leaked emails seen by Politico.

The email came in the wake of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s first announcement about the Kent variant on December 14.

The mutated strain of the virus hadn’t been mentioned to the public before a shock press conference less than a fortnight before Christmas. It took off at such speed that festive changes to lockdown rules were scrapped at the 11th hour for millions of people in London, the East and the South East.

A scramble for detail ensued, with PHE unable to give journalists any information beyond a name for the variant.

The leaked emails show the same rush for information was playing out behind the scenes, with senior medics baffled by the announcement.

When MailOnline requested details at the time of where cases of the Kent variant had been found, the Department of Health referred the request to PHE, which deferred to COG-UK, an organisation analysing the genetics in positive Covid test samples. COG-UK could not provide the information. 

PHE has denied that Dr Hopkins was criticising the Government in her email.

Dr Susan Hopkins, a senior medical adviser at PHE, agreed with colleagues’ frustrations about ‘science by press release’ when Matt Hancock surprised them by announcing the variant to the public

Politico reports that an infection control doctor and PHE adviser, Dr David Farren, said in the email conversation: ‘I can’t see anything on the usual channels.’

Dr Michael Kelsey, a microbiologist and NHS doctor in London, added: ‘This is part of the new “science by press release” that has become the norm.’

Dr Hopkins, who is the senior medical adviser at PHE, replied: ‘Science by press release is correct.’

She said it would be at least a day before PHE was able to explain the new variant to scientists; even those advising the government body.

GOVERNMENT CRITICISED FOR SURPRISE ANNOUNCEMENT ON KENT VARIANT

The Government has faced accusations in the past of blurting out updates without showing their workings, with critics frustrated when Boris Johnson announced in January that the Kent variant was more deadly as well as more infectious.

Ministers were only informed about the development on the morning of Friday, January 22, before it was announced at a press conference the same day.

NERVTAG, a sub-group of the SAGE advisory group, had discussed the issue on the Thursday. 

The group concluded there was a ‘realistic possibility’ that the variant resulted in an increased risk of death when compared with the original strain. 

Some critics accused ministers of scaremongering by announcing their fears that the Kent strain was more deadly at short notice without strong supporting evidence. 

The scientific papers behind the announcement, although available already, were published online by SAGE more than an hour after after the press conference began.

Tory backbencher Craig Mackinlay told MailOnline at the time some of the scientific warnings were reminiscent of Project Fear and every time there was hope of easing lockdown there was ‘a new twist’.

‘It seems to me we are now being held hostage to a zero Covid policy which is completely unattainable – or if you do attain it we are going to be in lockdown for an incredibly long period. That just cannot be,’ he said.

Dr Kit Yates, a mathematical biologist at the University of Bath, tweeted: ‘I really dislike the way the news about the increased lethality of B1.1.7 was leaked out and then discussed in a press briefing. Where is the data? 

‘We want to be able to scrutinise it and to understand the detail, not just the summary.’

When the new variant was unveiled by Mr Hancock, he said it was likely behind a surge in cases that was being seen in London, Kent and the South East at the time.

The Health Secretary admitted that 1,000 people had already tested positive for the variant by the time it was made public knowledge.

Cases dated back to at least October, experts later found out, but it was not identified as a risk until weeks later.

It has since been confirmed the variant spreads around 50 per cent faster than older versions of the coronavirus, which triggered a massive second wave of infections, hospital admissions and deaths, particularly in the South and East of England where it emerged.

And studies have also shown that the variant is slightly deadlier. 

Public Health England today denied that Dr Hopkins had been complaining about the Government in her comment.

A PHE spokesperson said: ‘Dr Hopkins was absolutely not criticising the Government. 

‘She was reflecting on the fact that, owing to the fast moving nature of the science throughout the pandemic, there has been a need to communicate quickly and directly to the public, often at the same time as the scientific community, as opposed to the usual full peer-review publication process which often takes months.’ 

The Government has faced accusations in the past of blurting out updates without showing their workings, with critics frustrated when Boris Johnson announced in January that the Kent variant was more deadly as well as more infectious.

Ministers were only informed about the development on the morning of Friday, January 22, before it was announced at a press conference the same day.

NERVTAG, a sub-group of the SAGE advisory group, had discussed the issue on the Thursday. 

The group concluded there was a ‘realistic possibility’ that the variant resulted in an increased risk of death when compared with the original strain. 

Some critics accused ministers of scaremongering by announcing their fears that the Kent strain was more deadly at short notice without strong supporting evidence. 

The scientific papers behind the announcement, although available already, were published online by SAGE more than an hour after after the press conference began.

Tory backbencher Craig Mackinlay told MailOnline at the time some of the scientific warnings were reminiscent of Project Fear and every time there was hope of easing lockdown there was ‘a new twist’.

‘It seems to me we are now being held hostage to a zero Covid policy which is completely unattainable – or if you do attain it we are going to be in lockdown for an incredibly long period. That just cannot be,’ he said.

Dr Kit Yates, a mathematical biologist at the University of Bath, tweeted: ‘I really dislike the way the news about the increased lethality of B1.1.7 was leaked out and then discussed in a press briefing. Where is the data? 

‘We want to be able to scrutinise it and to understand the detail, not just the summary.’ 

PHE’s own Dr Hopkins said at the time that there was no need to panic.

She explained: ‘There is evidence from some but not all data sources which suggests that the variant of concern which was first detected in the UK may lead to a higher risk of death than the non-variant. Evidence on this variant is still emerging and more work is underway to fully understand how it behaves.’

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