Dominic Cummings’ actions damage public trust | Letters


We are in a public health crisis unprecedented in living memory. We have written to the prime minister because we are very concerned for the safety and wellbeing of the public. There is ample evidence that effective epidemic control requires the public to trust and respect both the messages and the messengers who are advocating action. This trust has been badly damaged by the actions of Dominic Cummings, including his failure to stand down or resign in the public interest, and Boris Johnson’s subsequent unwillingness to remove him.

As lockdown is eased, public trust and high compliance is essential to reduce the risk of a second spike in infections and deaths. It is vital for all people in positions of power to follow the rules with the same discipline as the rest of the population. The public also needs to see that the necessary infrastructure and effective systems are put in place rapidly and effectively.

A national track and trace scheme is a major undertaking. This makes it even more crucial that there is complete transparency about likely time scales and the risks associated with the strategy and plan. The public mood is fragile and unlikely to cope with another over-optimistic target-based strategy that goes on to fail. We are also concerned that the needs of people primarily affected by non-Covid-19 diseases are being neglected. For example, since the pandemic hit, there has been a 70% or more reduction in cancer diagnoses and there is an estimated backlog of 100,000 undiagnosed or untreated cancer cases (growing by about 5,000 a week). Similar backlogs are evident in every non-communicable disease.

This exceptional situation also requires urgent and detailed planning and investment. We ask that the prime minister better harness the expertise in the NHS, social care, local authorities, academic institutions and the civil service to strengthen the response to Covid-19 and its knock-on effects on other health and care provision. We would be happy to assist in mobilising an effective strategic and operational response.

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Professor Maggie Rae, president of the Faculty of Public Health, Professor Elio Riboli, Imperial College London, Professor David McCoy, Queen Mary University London, Professor David Hunter, University of Oxford, Professor Trish Greenhalgh, University of Oxford, Mike Gill, former regional director of Public Health, south-east England, Professor Raj Bhopal, University of Edinburgh, Professor Martin McKee, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Professor George Davey Smith, University of Bristol, Professor Ruth Gilbert, University College London, Professor Neil Pearce, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Professor Helen Ward, Imperial College London, Professor Mark S Gilthorpe, University of Leeds and Alan Turing Institute, Professor Adrian Martineau, Queen Mary University London, Professor Allyson Pollock, University of Newcastle, Dr Rochelle Burgess, UCL Institute for Global Health, Professor Paolo Vineis, Imperial College London, Anne Wilson, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Dr Tim Colbourn, University College London, Professor Majid Ezzati, Imperial College London, Professor Deborah Ashby, Imperial College London, Professor Sonia Saxena, Imperial College London, Professor Richard Healey, University of Portsmouth, Professor Deborah A Lawlor, Bristol Medical School, Professor Guiqing Lily Yao, University of Leicester, Dr Nisreen Alwan, Southampton University

Don’t blame tobacco

Catherine Bennett obviously can’t look at a smoker enjoying their cigarette (“David Hockney may be a great painter but don’t listen to him on matters of health”, Comment). My colleagues Picasso, Monet, Matisse and Renoir all smoked and had long and very productive lives. Recently, Gillian Ayres died at 88, smoking away to the end. It’s Catherine Bennett giving the health advice, not me. She would be telling Monet off for smoking.

There’s something else: petrol fumes and what they have done to us. I asked what’s going to happen now we have had two months without many cars. A French doctor told me that there had been fewer heart attacks and strokes in this time, which is just what they blame tobacco for. Tobacco has been demonised in Britain, not so in France or Germany, not to mention Greece, with the lowest number of deaths and the highest number of smokers. We are messy creatures and all have to die. Why go on about it? The Russians say, if you don’t smoke or drink you die healthy. Death awaits you even if you do not smoke. My smoking is a trivial thing blown out of all proportion. Love life.
David Hockney
Normandy, France

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More to Sweden than Ikea

As a social anthropologist who studies health policy and Swedish culture, I am intrigued, bemused and horrified by the international coverage of Sweden’s Covid-19 strategy. One problem is the armchair anthropologists who use Ikea and Abba jokes to authoritatively critique Swedish culture (“Sweden’s Covid policy is a model for the right. It’s also a deadly folly”, Comment).

We do not blindly trust the government. We read the news, we watch the public health agency’s briefings and we make our own decisions. We are both communal and individualistic in ways that may seem contradictory to outsiders but usually make sense to us. Moreover, defining Swedishness misses the point. What is more useful is to examine how Swedish culture is defined, used (and abused), by whom, to what audience and why.

The question is not why Swedes are like this or that, it is this: what is so provocative about their approach that compels the international media to construct a drama about our Covid-19 experience?
Rachel Irwin, researcher
Lund University, Sweden

Give hope to young people

The call of those committed to action to help young people was relevant and timely (“An open letter: why we need a National Youth Corps”, Comment). The idea of a Youth Corps is not new. From 1998, the New Deal for the Young and Unemployed incorporated a range of options to tackle head on youth unemployment, following the Labour victory. As education and employment secretary, I and colleagues could take this forward because of the investment made available by Gordon Brown through the levy on the profits of the utilities. What was interesting in terms of the take-up (up to 100,000 in the first year) was the desire of young people to rejoin education and training, but their lack of enthusiasm for opportunities where they could not see a medium-term prospect of a job.

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In my view, it will not be possible to scale up such a project in the time frame set out by the authors of the letter but, if a start was made now, over several months a significant contribution could be made to counteracting the despair and alienation that many young people will feel if they cannot access education, training or a job.
David Blunkett
House of Lords, London SW1

My father’s anti-fascist fight

Harriet Sherwood’s article about the 43 Group brought back a piece of my family’s history (“The Jews who fought postwar fascists on the streets of London”, News). A fascist meeting at which Oswald Mosley was the main speaker was held in a Bethnal Green school in Wilmot Street in November 1947. The 43 Group heard about the meeting and rallied to protest.

Although not a member of the 43 Group, my father, Jack Shaw, was there. I was six and my mother was about to give birth to my twin sisters, so my father was torn between family responsibilities and a desire to meet the fascists head on. He was arrested during a fierce fight in the streets outside the school and duly appeared at Old Street magistrates’ court. Thanks to the Jewish leftwing lawyer Jack Gaster, his case was dismissed. Happily, my mother gave birth to my sisters just over two weeks later!
Dr Freddy Shaw
London E18



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