How Scientists Were Used by the U.S. and U.K. Governments to Support Madness in the First Years of the Pandemic

“I Just Wanted it to be ‘The Twilight Zone’ and All Go Away”

The London Eye, or Millennium Wheel, on the South Bank of the Thames, the most popular paid tourist attraction in the U.K.

By Jonathan Spira on 5 November 2023
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During the early years of the coronavirus pandemic, Devi Sridhar feared that scientific advisers in the United Kingdom were being used by the U.K. government.

Sridhar, chairman of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told Chris Whitty, who has served as chief medical advisor to the U.K. government since 2019, just that and the current government pandemic inquiry shows that that she was unfortunately spot on.

Over the past week, we’ve learnt enough to fill several seasons of a political drama series on HBO or Netflix or be the basis of an absurdist tragedy in the West End or on Broadway.

There was a “toxic macho culture” in former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, we learnt from Helen MacNamara, the former deputy cabinet secretary and chief ethics officer, and besides, according to one of his longest serving aides, Lee Cain, Johnson wasn’t the right man for the job anyway.  It was Cain who told the inquiry that the pandemic was the “wrong crisis” for the prime minister’s “skill set.” Cain spoke of great indecision in No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s offices, as a result.

If you were old, you didn’t want to get in Johnson’s or the coronavirus’ way as Johnson apparently believed and told senior advisers that the coronavirus was “just nature’s way of dealing with old people.”

Sometimes, it just sounds like the Johnson government and the FTX, the now bankrupt company started by convicted felon Samuel Bankman-Fried, had much in common in terms of not only being the wrong people for the job but having lost touch with reality.

Sir Patrick Valence, the country’s chief scientific advisor, described in his diaries a “bonkers set of meetings” that took place in August 2020.  Valence said that the then prime minister appeared to have been “obsessed with older people accepting their fate” and allowing younger people to get on with their lives during the early years of the pandemic.

Vallance’s diary also details how then chief whip Mark Spencer told a cabinet meeting in December 2020 that “we should let the old people get it and protect others.”

Not to be overlooked is former health secretary Matt Hancock, who wanted to decide “who should live and die” if the country’s National Health Service were to become overwhelmed, the panel was told, this according to a witness statement by Sir Simon Stevens, the former NHS England chief.

Sridhar saw this as well.

“Too often they were used by a dysfunctional government to appear competent and scientifically literate,” she wrote in a recent opinion piece in the Guardian.

But her concern was less with what was happening to politicians and more how scientists such as Whitty and the government’s then chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Valance, were being used to make the “mad king” (Johnson) seem believable by reinforcing government messaging in public while privately voicing grave concerns.

Whitty famously referred to then chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak’s “eat out to help out” scheme as “eat out to help the virus.”  It was evident that Sunak’s plan would just increase Covid cases, and it did just that.

This brings to mind the reaction that Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House pandemic coordinator under the previous administration, had when then president Trump floated the use of light and disinfectant treatments on coronavirus patients on national television.  She appeared dejected and later said that she felt paralyzed.

Birx also said that she, as a scientist, had been ill-equipped to deal with the toxic political atmosphere that was the Trump White House.

She also said that, even though she was the only one on Trump’s team with on-the-ground experience dealing with a deadly pandemic, she was constantly sidelined.

A look back at one comment is more than sufficient to bring this article to a close.

Shortly after New York City closed its playgrounds, according to Birx, a Department of Homeland Security scientist had just briefed Trump on how it appeared that sunlight would make the playgrounds safe for children.

This came right before a White House press briefing on April 23, 2020 that will live in ignominy.

“So supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just a very powerful light — and I think you said that hasn’t been checked because of the testing,” Trump said. “And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that, too.”

“I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? As you see, it gets in the lungs, it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that,” the president continued.

“I wanted to be able to reassure the parents that the natural disinfection activity of the sun, with its ability to produce those free radicals that eat these viruses and bacteria and fungi, their membranes, that that would work,” Birx told ABC News several years later. “And that they could get their children outside to play on the playground.”

But when Birx said she saw Trump and the government scientist informally continue their conversation before cameras – and the president make the leap to publicly question whether humans could be treated with disinfectant – she shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“I just wanted it to be ‘The Twilight Zone’ and all go away,” Birx said. “I mean, I just– I could just see everything unraveling in that moment.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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