A psychologist has accused the Government of ‘suppressing’ Covid data ahead of key lockdown reopening dates.
Stephen Reicher criticised the way public health information has been handled, including the timing of the release of documents about the Delta variant during the Eurovision Song Contest.
Mr Reicher, of Independent SAGE, claimed that the Government has sought positive headlines while ‘managing’ bad news.
Mr Reicher, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, spoke at the People’s Covid Inquiry on Wednesday night, where the panellists appeared in a personal capacity.
He claimed that the Government had a track record of ignoring warnings ahead of rising Covid rates during the course of the pandemic, including a call by Independent SAGE for a circuit breaker lockdown made by the group of scientists on September 22.
Mr Reicher cited the example of a report released on Saturday, May 22 during Eurovision showing that vaccines in the UK are highly effective in protecting against the Delta variant, with the Pfizer-BioNTech jab giving 88% protection after two doses.
However, the report also noted a ‘rapid increase’ in the variant which had a higher proportion of Covid cases among people who had travelled abroad and among females and people living in the North West and London.
Mr Reicher also told the virtual hearing that the documents released during Eurovision raised the risk assessments for the Delta variant from amber to red in the categories of transmissibility and vaccines.
The Government described his assertions as ‘deeply misleading and simply untrue’ today, saying it has been transparent throughout the pandemic.
Mr Reicher said: ‘They are beginning to almost manage and suppress data.
‘When Public Health England (PHE) data came out during the Delta variant just over a week ago, first of all they had a press conference where they briefed it was good news.
‘Then they released three documents at ten-thirty on a Saturday night when we were all of course watching the Eurovision song contest and urging the Brits to win, which didn’t turn out too well.
‘When you looked at those documents, for all the talk about this being good news Public Health England have actually increased the alert level for vaccines from amber to red, thus suggesting the fourth criterion of the roadmap, that we shan’t proceed if there are new variants which substantially alter the risks, that criterion hadn’t been met.’
The behavioural scientist also told the inquiry, organised by campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, that information about infections in schools has not been released despite calls from parents, teachers and unions.
He said: ‘It’s beginning to look like it’s got to a stage where the Government is not just spinning or ignoring information, that’s one thing, it’s managing politically the release of information or even suppressing information, and that’s very serious indeed.’
The professor told the inquiry, which is being overseen by renowned human rights lawyer Michael Mansfield QC, that fixed dates for unlocking were leading people to become ‘emotionally invested’ in the milestones without adequate notes of caution.
Mr Reicher, referring to last year’s hospitality reopening, said: ‘The decision to open up on the fourth of July, Independence Day, a Saturday, will get headlines saying things like “freedom” and so on.
‘The Prime Minister messaging that people should go to the pub as their patriotic duty and go back to their office were all in effect saying to people things aren’t dangerous, and we are repeating exactly the same mistake.’
The spread of the Delta variant has put the June 21 reopening – known as Freedom Day – into question, although the Prime Minister has said there is ‘nothing in the data’ to suggest it should be cancelled.
Mr Reicher said: ‘Throughout the pandemic very few governments regret caution, many governments regret moving too fast.
‘Right now we are in that situation of decision-making uncertainty, which is always difficult, there’s no perfect answer and every decision carries risks.
‘If we decide to open up and there is a spike in infections and the Delta virus actually not only leads to more infections, but those infections have serious consequences, then we will be in very deep trouble.’
In a PHE press release accompanying the data, Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the evidence as a ‘ground-breaking’ insight into how the vaccination push is ‘protecting the people we love’.
The Government maintains that it publishes Covid data and advice on a weekly basis, speaks directly and pro-actively to the media about the Delta variant and is ‘looking at ways to publish cases transmitted in different settings in a robust and clear way’.
A spokesperson said: ‘These claims are deeply misleading and simply untrue. We have been transparent about the approach we’ve taken throughout the pandemic and have been clear the Government’s primary duty is to save lives and protect the NHS while safeguarding jobs and livelihoods.
‘Our commitment to openness has been at the heart of our handling of this pandemic with press conferences, briefings, daily data updates and the significant volume of scientific advice and evidence regularly released into the public domain for everyone to see.’
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