Listening to scientific advice on pandemic

 

Sir, – As somebody who previously worked in the UK NHS and who has family and good friends there, I take a particular interest in that country’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. This helps to provide perspective on our successes and failures, but also to better understand the reasons for these.

The number of cases of infection and deaths in the UK have been comparatively high by international standards, and greater than our own. However, they were quicker than us in starting their vaccination programme. Currently, they have relaxed public health measures in the face of increasing numbers of the Delta variant but time will tell the wisdom or otherwise of that approach. Here, we have made significant progress in vaccinating the population, but we have been more cautious in relaxing lockdown measures.

In Ireland, there has been frustration in some quarters at how Nphet has operated and the advice it has given. Similarly, the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) has occasionally come in for criticism because the advice on vaccination has not been quick enough or considered too cautious. Both bodies have considerable professional and scientific expertise and are largely autonomous, with the Government as the executive deciding to take their advice, in full, in part, or not all. Sensibly, both governments during the pandemic have accepted in large measure this scientifically based advice and this has been to the benefit of the Irish population. In the UK, the prime minister pronounces what steps are to be taken, flanked by the chief scientific and medical officers, but with the sense that those two individuals are under some pressure to agree with what has been decided politically.

The high vaccination uptake and generally good compliance with public health advice in Ireland are hugely welcome. Is this because Irish people perceive that the advice on vaccination and public health measures are scientifically driven and adopted by politicians rather than being decided on by the politicians to serve political ends? The necessity for advisory bodies to call it as it is remains absolutely paramount, even if that sometimes means that we have to be patient and wait for the data to be analysed and the advice delivered. Furthermore, when we get the advice, it may not be what we wanted to hear. However, that degree of separation of the advisory bodies from the Government has served us well because the public believe that what they are being asked to do derives from expert bodies based on the evidence. While we have made some mistakes in managing the pandemic, the governance around the role and remit of the advisory bodies and their relationship with the Government has not been one of them. – Yours, etc,

HILARY HUMPHREYS,

Professor of Clinical

Microbiology,

Royal College of Surgeons

in Ireland,

Consultant Microbiologist,

Beaumont Hospital,

Dublin 9.