Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Face Doesn't Fit?

Magnus Linklater wrote an interesting opinion piece for The Times the other day in which he queried the Scottish Government's apparent reluctance to make use of the experience and expertise of Professor Hugh Pennington.



One of our wisest scientists is being ignored

Ministers should have listened when Hugh Pennington warned that care homes were ‘super-spreaders’ of coronavirus

By Magnus Linklater - The Times

On Question Time last week one panelist in particular commanded attention and respect whenever he spoke.

Professor Hugh Pennington is 82, a microbiologist of distinction, an expert on virology, food safety and infectious diseases. While other participants discussed the coronavirus outbreak in layman’s terms, Professor Pennington drew on first-hand research.

He knew what he was talking about, and the audience sensed it. As he spoke I wished it was his voice we were hearing alongside that of the first minister and her medical colleagues at those daily press conferences. We would, I feel, have learnt a lot.

But Professor Pennington has been excluded. Quite why, I have no idea. Looking back, his analysis of Covid-19 has been remarkably prescient.

In mid-March the professor wrote a letter to The Times that said: “I share your puzzlement as to why a country such as Britain with its scientific facilities should be so far behind in its Covid-19 testing capacity. The test has been available since January 13.”

Professor Pennington added: “Every district general hospital microbiology lab has scientific staff who could conduct it, and there are many researchers in university centres who could be redeployed to do it. That is what we did during the big 1996 E. coli O157 outbreak in central Scotland (21 deaths), raising our testing capacity at least five-fold overnight.”

That letter appeared in the week that the Scottish government was going in the opposite direction, suspending its testing programme, and advising that schools could remain open. “Blanket school closures don’t help us unfortunately with viral spread,” said Professor Jason Leitch, the government’s national clinical director, at the time. That advice was thrown rapidly into reverse as new evidence emerged, but experts north and south of the border were playing catch-up for much of that period.

Not so Professor Pennington. Anyone who cares to read the lengthy evidence he gave to Holyrood’s Covid-19 committee on April 28 will be introduced to a masterclass in scientific analysis. For close on two hours he took MSPs through the available evidence, the origins of the disease, its essential characteristics and its critical difference from previous outbreaks. He warned them that care homes were at great risk, and that not enough was being done to protect them. They were, he said, “super- spreaders” with an R number, or reproduction rate, which could be ten times the required level.

It was not the first time he had warned about the care home risk. He talked of it as early as March 6, during an Any Questions discussion, and he emphasised it again on April 15, well before the Scottish government was alerted to the full scale of the crisis. Now, of course, it is received wisdom that care homes were neglected in those early weeks.

Ministers should have listened to Pennington. They did not. For some curious reason, despite being a regular guest on radio and TV programmes, consulted by the press and reported as an acknowledged expert, he was kept out of the inner circles of government, and that isolation was reflected by members of the Scottish National Party.

“When [my constituents] hear someone with your expertise saying things that are contrary to the popular advice, why should they listen to you?” demanded the Paisley MSP George Adam. “Do you have evidence to back up what you said, or is it just your opinion?”

A group of SNP commentators dismissed him afterwards as a “bacteriologist”, ignoring the fact that for Pennington this was actually a compliment: he had worked alongside the late virologist June Almeida, whose skills in microscopic investigation first identified an unknown group of viruses which came to be known as coronavirus. He was, therefore, in on the origins of the disease.

One might imagine this kind of source knowledge would be invaluable to any government. But when Nicola Sturgeon was told about Professor Pennington’s comments on the infective level of care homes, she brusquely dismissed them. “I don’t know where he got that figure,” she said. Might it not have been sensible to ask the professor himself?

It may be, of course, that the Pennington advice is inconvenient, not least his latest thinking on the possibility that the so-called second wave of the virus may not be such a threat as was originally conceived. Surely, however, science is more important than politics. Research is very often inconvenient, but that is no reason for ignoring it. Selecting advisers on the basis that their advice is politically acceptable, rather than those who really know what they are talking about, seems the wrong way around.

Could it be that Professor Pennington’s politics count against him? He was a leading light in the Better Together campaign and has never made any secret of the fact that he regards independence as a threat to Scotland’s future. Suspicions that his political views may have left him ostracised have been voiced by various commentators but have always been dismissed by ministers.

So might Professor Pennington’s age count against him? Unlike other societies, this country does not accord automatic respect to the elderly. They are seen as the vulnerable section, those that have to be protected, rather than a source of wisdom. Yet science is, surely, an accumulation of knowledge, an ability to acquire new theories when the evidence comes along to sustain them, and that goes with age and experience. What goes on in Professor Pennington’s head is a national asset, and his ability to articulate it is of enormous value.

Our knowledge about the coronavirus is expanding almost every day as we seek to understand how it works. We need to draw on the very best of science to keep up with it, and to respect those who are at the forefront of the field. That does not seem to be happening here.

As Isaac Asimov, another scientist who was widely distrusted by the establishment, once wrote: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”