Richard North, 29/05/2021  

Days after Edwina Currie claimed in December 1988 that most egg production was infected with salmonella, I was in the thick of it. At the time, I had ambitions of setting up a technical publishing company, so my initial response to her claim was to gather material for an analytical report on what by then was being called the “Salmonella in eggs” crisis.

Most of the outbreaks claimed to be associated with eggs had a arisen in commercial catering premises. As a specialist in food safety in catering operations, with clients all over the UK – and considerable experience in investigating food poisoning outbreaks – I was well placed to study the evidence and make independent observations about the crisis.

But, as I immersed myself further and further into the detail, I found that the background evidence, on which Currie had based her claim, simply didn’t stack up. Either key details were missing from published narratives or there were important inconsistencies.

In one remarkable “egg associated” outbreak, illness had been apparent in the affected cohort days before the eggs attributed as the source of infection had even been delivered to the premises concerned, and long before the food implicated had been made. This, I reasoned, must have been the very first salmonella outbreak in history, where some of the victims had become ill before consuming the infective organism. It was not to be the last.

By Christmas of that year, I had put together enough evidence to be convinced that Currie had got it badly wrong. Hastily assembling a report, which I entitled “A Failure of Government”, I circulated this widely to the industry and others, including the media.

To cut a very long story short, I ended up working for the egg industry and, after gathering even more evidence which strengthened my original findings, I decided to do a properly structured study, under rigorous academic supervision. To that effect, I applied to become and was eventually accepted as a PhD student, researching a thesis which had the working title of “The Quality of Public Sector Food-Poisoning Surveillance in England and Wales – with specific reference to Salmonellosis”.

This was not to be just a study of food-poisoning outbreaks, but a top-to-bottom evaluation of the system in England and Wales which was charged with the investigation and control of food-poisoning – much the same system which was responsible for infectious diseases in general and, had the Covid-19 pandemic occurred then, would have been on the front line.

Of special relevance to current events, therefore, was the official response to my investigations. No sooner had I started when my lead supervisor – whose department was running a number of food safety-related projects financed by the (then) Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – was summoned to London at very short notice to meet MAFF officials.

He was considerably shaken when I saw him next, when he told me he had found himself in front of a “star chamber” of senior officials. The sole purpose of the meeting was to quiz him on my activities and then to instruct him that I was to be isolated from his department’s work and to be given no access to any research data which had been funded by MAFF.

My next collision with officialdom came when I sought information from what was then the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS). Needing some specific details, I phoned the director of one of the laboratories whom I knew slightly. He took my call, but then told me that he and all his colleagues in the service had been given official instructions that they were not to talk with me, give me any information or communicate with me in any way.

Over the period, I encountered many other obstacles but nonetheless persevered. I had my own ways of getting the information. Towards the end of the project, before I had written it up, I was invited to deliver a paper in London to a seminar organised by one of the professional institutes of which I was a member.

I produced the paper, outlining my preliminary findings and presenting irrefutable evidence that a senior scientist of the PHLS had falsified his data on one of the index outbreaks which had informed Currie, turning it into an “egg associated” outbreak, when the unadulterated data indicated precisely the opposite. I even had the original of the letter, signed in his name, venturing that the true cause of the outbreak would probably never be known (although that wasn’t true either).

The seminar itself was chaired by the then chief environmental health officer of the Department of Health and, on the day, I found myself relegated to the graveyard session, the very last of the day. But when it came the penultimate session, the “chair” let the speaker over-run, so much so that by the time I came to speak, there was less then ten minutes left for may paper.

No sooner had I started speaking, when the chair rose, told the audience that we were out of time and he was ending the session. Despite my protests, I has been shut down. The establishment was protecting its own.

When my thesis was published, it was summarised at length in a technical journal but, despite the importance of the subject, I was never again asked to deliver a public lecture on my study and its conclusions.

Even though it is now dated, not a few of the problems I identified apply today and, through the progressive reorganisations and “reforms” that had occurred, the system is now considerably worse than I had reported it to be when I delivered my thesis in March 1995.

Where this now has considerable relevance is in appreciating two things. The first is that, long before the Covid-19 epidemic broke in 2020, there were many serious faults in the system for controlling infection disease outbreaks in this country. The second was that the senior people in the system didn’t want to know.

Whenever they had been told there were failings, they simply closed ranks and shut their minds to any possibility of inadequacy. And it was that stultifying level of complacency which had chief medical officer, Chris Whitty (in post only since 2019), confidently declaring on 31 January 2020 – when the first two confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK were detected, two Chinese nationals, staying in an apartment hotel in York – that the NHS was “extremely well-prepared for managing infections”.

If only a fraction of what Dominic Cummings said on Wednesday is true – and we know from other sources that much of it is sound – Chris Whitty is a man who should be made to eat his words. Not by any measure could it be considered that the NHS was even well-prepared, much less “extremely well-prepared” for what was to come.

But, as we now move into a phase where the skeletons are marching out of the cupboards in cohorts, and the evidence of failure becomes more and more apparent, we now see the political establishment closing ranks, especially in respect of Matt Hancock the man in the spotlight for the moment.

Thursday in the Commons saw a sickening display of tribal loyalty from the Tory backbenches, so obvious that even the Telegraph noticed. And, despite having been let down by his health secretary, Johnson has allowed his spokesman to declare that he has “full confidence” in Hancock “and will continue working with him to protect public health and save lives”.

This much is to be expected. If Hancock falls under the weight of Cummings’s accusations, Johnson can’t be far behind. It is a question of, “together they stand, divided they fall”.

What I found particularly offensive, though, was the response of business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng. Predictably, he has defended Matt Hancock against criticism, and just as predictably, he has done so with a lie, saying that care home residents “were protected as far as we could”.

So used are we to these easy lies that the shock dissipates with repetition, but then – in an obvious attempt to diminish the force of the criticism – he grandly declared that it was “very easy with hindsight” to say where things could have been improved.

In actuality, though, it isn’t that easy – even with hindsight – to determine what improvements should be made. But that isn’t the point. We pay a huge number of people a considerable amount of money and expend a great deal of treasure in planning for the future and, in particular, adverse events such as pandemics. In other words, we pay people to be wise before the event.

This is not easy – but neither is it impossible and there is now growing evidence that the planning process failed. Officials and their political masters failed on multiple occasions to determine what improvements were needed to a dangerously inadequate system. But, between complacency, indifference, arrogance and plain incompetence, they failed to prepare.

The likes of Kwarteng, with his glib cliché, we can do without.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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