UK: Ministers have scorned some of Britain’s top virus experts, hired novices instead – and blown billions

UK: Ministers have scorned some of Britain’s top virus experts, hired novices instead – and blown billions. By David Rose.

Deenan Pillay’s patience finally snapped as he watched television in his north London home. And it was Matt Hancock who did it.

As Britain struggled to cope with the Covid pandemic, the Professor of Virology at University College London, became increasingly frustrated that the country’s medical expertise was being sidelined.

Deenan Pillay, one of many virus experts pushed aside by overpaid know-nothing consultants from Deloittes

When he heard the Health Secretary trumpet the purchase of 10 million antibody tests in May as a game-changer, he lost it.

Professor Pillay explains: ‘To me, it sounded like soundbite nonsense. I just couldn’t understand how he could stand there and say that. It seemed to exemplify everything that was wrong in their approach to the crisis.’

In his view, the antibody tests hailed by Mr Hancock were useless. They could not indicate whether someone was infected, and there had been no clinical trials to establish effectiveness. More, nobody even knew if antibodies would protect someone from re-infection.

Professor Pillay and his fellow experts — members of the Clinical Virology Network, spanning 45 NHS laboratories and top universities — had been fuming for weeks at decisions that ‘lacked an evidence base’ and were taken ‘without relevant expertise’.

Since the start of the pandemic, those making policy and spending billions in Downing Street and the Department of Health had been ignoring the virology experts.

The consequences, Professor Pillay and many of his colleagues believed, had been deeply damaging to the test and trace regime.

Indeed, Baroness Harding, the Prime Minister’s Oxford University friend and Tory MP’s wife who heads the £12billion NHS Test and Trace operation, admits her teams are, incredibly, reaching only 10-20 per cent of people in contact with those who have been infected. Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt claimed the true figure might be as low as 3 per cent.

So what, then, has gone wrong?

Perhaps the answer lies in what Professor Pillay did next. Infuriated by Mr Hancock’s TV appearance, he called together more than 60 virologists and fired off a letter to Chris Whitty, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, its Chief Scientific Adviser.

Writing more in sorrow than in anger, they offered stand ready to help. And the response? Rude, baffling … and illuminating.

The virologists wrote on July 10: ‘Our skills have been under-used and under-represented, resulting in lost opportunities to establish a co-ordinated, robust and durable testing framework. As clinical virology professionals we provide a wealth of experience in the diagnosis and management of viral infection… We believe we could have contributed far more to many essential aspects of the pandemic response.’

By July the first lockdown was over, and the crisis had apparently eased. But, the virologists made clear, the virus was likely to make a comeback. …

Incredibly, the experts never even got a reply. They tried again a month later — and were finally told simply to take it up with their local NHS managers: A clear rebuff.

And when they wrote to Baroness Harding in September, again offering their services? Not even the courtesy of an acknowledgement. …

The Daily Mail today unearths a recurring pattern where experts’ advice is ignored, and vast sums are thrown at untried ‘solutions’ when apparently cheaper, better ones were at hand. Our investigation shows: …

  • Many of accountant Deloitte’s management consultants — brought in at huge expense to deliver the Government’s new testing network rather than to use existing NHS labs — had no healthcare experience, and instead had backgrounds in fields such as printing banknotes.
  • Deloitte’s daily log reveals that when the Lighthouse labs started operating, they were given dispensation from meeting official standards. …

None of the Deloitte consultants — some on up to £7,000 a day — had a background in virology. Some had never even worked in healthcare.

No doubt the Deloitte’s people exuded confidence, looked good, and made the ministers feel good about themselves. That last factor is especially important (I used to be a consultant in Canberra).

Conditions have been so benign for the last 50 years that it hasn’t been critical to get things right. It hasn’t mattered much that real knowledge and judgement were cast aside, so people got out of the habit of being fussy about performance and talent. Instead, we are living in a tyranny of the glib and the sociopathic.