Scientists and lies – The Covid Inquiry and Jenny Harries

Joseph Healy looks at the role of Professor Jenny Harries, a scientist who has acted as a shield and protection for her political masters and who continues to fulfil that role


Over the last few weeks the country has been gripped by the news from the Covid Inquiry as politicians, civil servants and scientists have given evidence of the disaster that unfolded from February 2020 until so called Freedom Day in July 2021. We are still living with the ramifications of that disaster today, apart that is from the nearly a quarter of a million people who lost their lives because of it. There are the usual pantomime villains whose mendacity and arrogance stand out – Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Dr Death himself (Rishi Sunak) along with their jesters like Dominic Cummings.

There are also the cast of scientists who tried to sound the alarm bells to an increasingly uncaring government – Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van Tam. However, one figure among this group stands out as someone who though being a scientist, has acted as a shield and protection for her political masters and who continues to fulfil that role – Professor Jenny Harries.

During the main period of the pandemic Harries acted as Deputy Chief Medical Officer, second in command to Chris Whitty. She often fronted the Covid press conferences and was notable for her pronouncements on both science and government policy, always, of course, fully backing the latter. Some of these statements have come back to haunt her but also show that either her knowledge of the science was shaky or else that her desire to serve the Tory government led to her suppressing the truth.

She first entered the fray early in the pandemic when she gave her views on wearing facemasks in April 2020 when she declared that they could “actually trap the virus and cause the person wearing it to breathe it in. For the average person walking down the street it is not a good idea to wear a face mask in the hope of preventing infection.” There was no scientific evidence for this and it has since been disproved by the Cochrane Review among other reports but at a time when PPE was in short supply and the government was pushing for NHS workers to have priority, this argument served a purpose. It also meant that staff in care homes, where infection rates were extremely high, were also discouraged from mask wearing resulting in countless infections, death and disability.

She compounded this by dismissing the WHO’s recommendation to “test, test, test” by stating that this was only directed towards developing countries with poor health systems and that the UK didn’t need testing because of the high quality of its health system. This was again convenient for the government at a time when the testing system was in meltdown but was just what was needed at the time and would have saved many lives.

When in April 2020, during the first wave of the virus, NHS staff were left unprotected with no PPE, some wearing binbags, she declared that there was no crisis and that the UK was an “international exemplar of preparedness”. This was absolutely not the case.

In the summer of 2020, as the second wave was beginning to build and there was huge pressure to reopen schools that autumn, with absolutely no mitigations in place, a campaign led by the right wing press and the Department of Education, she declared that children were in no danger of acquiring Covid and that they were more likely to be run over by a bus. This statement provided cover for the disastrous second wave, where many teachers and teaching assistants died and many children were infected. The highest rate of Long Covid is now among those working in education and at least 200 children have died of the disease. There was no factual basis for these reassurances and her position gave cover to the ideological and economic argument to open schools with no protection and led to many parents returning their children to unsafe schools with no ventilation.

In March 2020 during one of the biggest scandals of the pandemic, the discharge of Covid positive patients into the totally unprepared care home sector, Harries again provided cover by approving it. Recently at the Covid Inquiry she said that although her correspondence approving this might look terrible with the benefit of hindsight, the NHS had to be protected from being overwhelmed. Therefore she clearly put into motion the eugenicist policy of Johnson that older people had “had a good innings” and sent infected patients into care homes knowing that those living and working there were sitting ducks, resulting in a huge death rate. Many in the care homes had no medical support, other than the medically untrained care staff. It was a massacre of the old and vulnerable.

In May 2021 when Public Health England was abolished, Harries was appointed Head of the new UKHSA (UK Health Security Agency) and in January 2022 granted a Damehood by Johnson for services rendered. She had been the scientist singing word for word from the government hymn sheet and was rewarded accordingly.

More recently Harris gave a press interview where she has suggested that in the event of another pandemic that the UK should “act more like Sweden”. For Oakeshott and the right wing press as well as the anti-vaxxer movement, Sweden is the exemplar, having had no lockdowns and allowing the virus to let rip. When questioned about this at the Covid Inquiry, she seemed to distance herself from the interview but this was in the context of some of the Great Barrington Declaration supporters at the Inquiry having been given short shrift and one of them, Professor Carl Heneghan, having been described by the current Chief Scientific Adviser as “a fuckwit”.

Harries’s UKHSA has continued to preside over the disastrous “Living with Covid” policy. They have not emphasised mask wearing, even in health care settings, resulting in thousands of hospital acquired infections and deaths. Their public health campaigns seem to emphasise hand washing, though it has long been clear that the virus is airborne and that this is the main route of transmission. It is not surprising that a scientist who has got so many of the calls wrong in relation to this virus continues to do so. Unlike many other countries, the UK has no wastewater measurement of the virus, which is a vital means of alerting us to how widespread it is and the UKHSA has done nothing to address this. Under Harries, mass infection continues to be the policy.

This raises the essential argument about science and politics and about the truly independent nature of science. All through the pandemic the government claimed that they were following the science but we know now from the Inquiry that this was not the case. Harries was the quintessential career scientist in the service of this eugenicist government.

As Bertolt Brecht wrote in his play Galileo about the nature of science and power: “Someone who doesn’t know the truth is just thick-headed. But someone who does know it and calls it a lie is a crook”

Harries is the Galileo of Covid and when its story becomes the subject of a play will have a very dark role in it.

Source >> Covid Action

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Joseph Healy is a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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