Our readers must be punch drunk with policy flip flops, transformations, kevlar armour, modelling and other poor science. As they all say, “It ain’t us guv, it’s them”.
You asked us to continue documenting the chaos at the heart of Government from our perspective, so this will be another post along the same lines. It will be a bit long, unfortunately, but stay with us.
We follow the trajectory of the statements on the use of masks made by Dame Jenny Harries, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer at the height of the pandemic and now Chief Executive of the United Kingdom Health Security Authority (UKHSA). We also document the efforts of an MP to clarify what is going on and some of the personal attacks we have come under for sticking to using good quality evidence as the precautionary principle entails.
At the pandemic’s beginning, Dame Jenny had a cosy fireside chat with Mr. Boris Johnson, the then Prime Minister. Dame Jenny reassured the PM that mass gatherings were not a danger to the spread of the virus.
Dame Jenny added that “it’s usually quite a bad idea to wear a mask if a healthcare professional hasn’t asked you to wear one”. The message was repeated on the BBC as mask usage could “trap the virus”. According to the Independent, Harries stated that mask usage could increase the risk of infection.
Here is an excellent video summary of Harries’s early 2020 mask statements:
Along the way, she dismissed the idea of closing schools, which were duly shut a few days later.
But then, mask-wise, everything changed, as we have documented in our partial timeline.
The Department of Transport enforced the use of masks on no evidence whatsoever, and the stage was set for the muzzling of a free people. In February 2021, for example, Harries stated, “It’s quite possible over the summer months – as we did last year – when we see rates drop, that we would not need to be wearing masks all that time,” but come next winter, time to muzzle up, folks! But where was the scientific evidence for mask use?
In response to a Parliamentary question by Lord Leicester, the Government responded:
We promised we would look at the evidence quoted by the Government. We duly did, reporting our findings in a series of posts in TTE:
- U.K. Government Evidence for Mask Mandates – an Intro:
- Mystery studies: Take a pick of what this study contributes
- Studies with non-representative populations: Troubles with generalising results
- Studies with obscure methods: Who knows what went on?
- Studies with no blinding, no protocol:
- Office for National Statistics – Part 1: Which cherry should you pick?
- Office for National Statistics – Part 2: Some cherries are better than others
- Studies which shouldn’t have been in the UKHSA review
- Predatory Journals to Inform Mask Policy
- U.K. Government Evidence for Mask Mandates – Main Points
Given the low-quality evidence, the poor methods of the review quoted by Lord Markham and the UKHSA statements, we ended by asking on April 17th whether the UKHSA was fit for purpose.
Based on our findings and the ongoing split between evidence and policy, Philip Davies MP met with Dame Jenny and Renu Bindra on April 27th 2023. In this meeting, the two promised Mr. Davies to provide “strong evidence” that masks worked [in interrupting viral transmission] in immunosuppressed and infectious individuals.
Despite several reminders, Mr. Davies is still waiting. He pressed UKHSA, especially since some NHS hospitals have reintroduced compulsory masking, and he is worried that his Shipley constituents might be forced to follow suit. In other words, he is doing his job.
Mr. Davies does not appear to want to be brushed aside as an inconvenience, so he filed a Subject Access Request (SAR), which was delivered to him four months after filing.
We invite readers to have a read of it, as in our view, it shows the utter contempt officials hold for elected Members of Parliament, or perhaps some of them:
Extracts of the internal UKHSA communications show Davies’s office requested further information on patients with immunosuppression and masking. A response never saw the light of day.
The response requested we know will not be acceptable to the recipient from the outset since he has already expressed strong views of acting only on firm, high quality evidence (absent for this topic) rather than on the precautionary principle.
Also, there is a reluctance to meet with a sitting Member of Parliament.
I do not think it is the right decision for you to meet with every MP who has a minor query on a specific point of guidance.
The UKHSA thinks mask mandates were a minor issue. However, their responses are concerning.
The UKHSA assembled a brief Wikipedia-style character assassination of Mr. Davies:
“I have to say I am very disappointed that the MP has been pushing for a meeting with XXX on this topic supposedly in the interests of their constituents, but it seems actually as material for their TV show” – so nothing to do with his Shipley constituents.
The taxpayer’s cash was spent putting the brief together, which clashes with UKHSA’s claims they could only do a mapping review on non-pharmaceutical interventions as they lacked the resources to do a thorough review.
We did the job for them by looking at the 100 models they had “mapped” and reported on them on the ‘Retrofitting of evidence’ series.
Running concurrently is the story of Cochrane’s review of A122 ‘Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses’. The fourth update was published in 2020 (delayed by six crucial months, as we described. It was accompanied by an editorial undermining the work with statements like “Waiting for strong evidence is a recipe for paralysis”, and “Public health officials must, instead, take measured gambles”, subverting the precautionary principle.
The 2023 update instead attracted an ‘apology’ from the Cochrane Editor-in-Chief that gave wriggle room for the mask activists to discredit the authors and the former CDC Director to mislead Congress. As a result, the focus shifted to the poor quality observational evidence that gave the ‘right’ outcomes.
The ultimate accolade was being dubbed “Dr. Mengele” by an activist for having proposed human challenge studies to solve the impasse on the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. The first challenge study took place a few months later to identify a dose of SARS-CoV-2 that induced well-tolerated infection in more than 50% of participants.
But let’s not get distracted. In her testimony, Dame Jenny gave at the inquiry, the KC quoted her writing:
As late as August 2020, Jenny Harries said the evidence that masks stop the spread of coronavirus is “not very strong in either direction”. The Mail reported, “Britons have been left confused again over experts’ changing attitudes to masks.”
Yet, Harries then went on the record recommending masks on several occasions, including in March 2022, stating she would continue to “wear a mask on public transport and in shops” because of high levels of Covid.
Harries’s line was reiterated in Lord Markham’s statement already cited:
The evidence suggests that face coverings reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the community through source control, wearer protection, and universal masking.
Boris Johnson described the guidance on face coverings as “b—cks”. Indeed, Boris, it’s all b—cks.
Harries defended her position by saying the uncertainty “was partly because of the difficulty of designing a study to accurately test their effectiveness in real-world conditions”.
Yet, randomised trials have been done in Hajj pilgrims, rural and peri‐urban villages, householders with a child with fever and respiratory symptoms, office buildings, primary schools and childcare centres.
Indeed, there are challenges to running trials in the community; however, A122 shows that 78 RCTs have been done on physical interventions to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses.
These mask trials have been done in Australia, Bangladesh, Denmark, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand, the USA and Canada. None have been done in the U.K.
It’s been three years since the Facebook censorship of our Spectator article on the DANMASK trial. The Danish trial during the pandemic combined 16 other trials carried out over the years at times of variable respiratory agents’ circulation, showing no significant effect.
Three years on, our position remains the same:
In this sorry saga, U.K. citizens have been left confused over experts flip-flopping. Science has been damaged as changing messaging highlights a lack of intellectual honesty and personal responsibility.
There is a dire need to develop robust evidence to inform what does and doesn’t work in which settings. But if a sitting MP can’t get a straight answer over the proof for mask-wearing, who can?
The absence of evidence means if an epidemic or a pandemic occurs – or there’s the slightest hint hospitals could be overwhelmed – it’ll be more flip-flopping with the call to mask-up. How’s that for b—cks?
Prof. Carl Heneghan is the Oxford Professor of Evidence Based Medicine and Dr. Tom Jefferson is an epidemiologist based in Rome who works with Professor Heneghan on the Cochrane Collaboration. This article was first published on their Substack, Trust The Evidence, which you can subscribe to here.