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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Boris Johnson accused of misleading MPs over ‘stay alert’ slogan

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Boris Johnson has been accused of misleading parliament by suggesting that his top medical and scientific advisers signed off his government’s new “stay alert” slogan.

The acting Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, claims the prime minister misled MPs “inadvertently or otherwise” by telling them in a debate in the Commons on Monday that reports that they had not approved the message were “not right”.

Davey has asked Johnson to come back to the chamber to “clear up this discrepancy” and ensure that Hansard, the official record of parliamentary proceedings, is clarified so that it is accurate.

Davey has written to Johnson about his response to the Guardian’s report on Monday that neither Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, nor Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, had approved the “stay alert” message. Political leaders, scientists and doctors have criticised it as vague and confusing and warned that it could lead to the erosion of public compliance with the lockdown rules.

The experts appeared to undermine Johnson’s denial when asked about the report by the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, when they appeared alongside him at a press conference on Monday evening.

In the debate about the government’s new plan to ease the lockdown Davey said: “Throughout this crisis, many of us have put party politics aside to support the national effort to defeat coronavirus and we want to keep doing that, not least because the British people have sacrificed so much already, but in return, the government must be clear with the British people and reassure us that ministers are following the science and the advice of independent experts.

“So will the prime minister confirm new reports that neither the chief medical officer nor the chief scientific adviser signed off yesterday’s shift in the public health message from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’?”

In reply Johnson said: “That is not right”.

In his letter Davey told Johnson he was “extremely concerned” that his denial appeared to be at odds with what Whitty and Vallance said to Kuenssberg.

The World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on face masks has remained consistent during the coronavirus pandemic. It has stuck to the line that masks are for healthcare workers – not the public. 

“Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including Covid-19. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted,” the WHO has stated.

Nevertheless, as some countries have eased lockdown conditions, they have been making it mandatory to wear face coverings outside, as a way of trying to inhibit spread of the virus. This is in the belief that the face covering will prevent people who cough and sneeze ejecting the virus any great distance. 

There is no robust scientific evidence – in the form of trials – that ordinary masks block the virus from infecting people who wear them. There is also concerns the public will not understand how to use a mask properly, and may get infected if they come into contact with the virus when they take it off and then touch their faces.

Also underlying the WHO’s concerns is the shortage of high-quality protective masks for frontline healthcare workers.

Nevertheless, masks do have a role when used by people who are already infected. It is accepted that they can block transmission to other people. Given that many people with Covid-19 do not show any symptoms for the first days after they are infected, masks clearly have a potential role to play, especially on crowded public transport as people return to work..

 Sarah Boseley Health editor

He reminded the prime minister he had inquired about the “scientific and evidential basis for the change in messaging” when Johnson briefed opposition party leaders by telephone on Sunday, ahead of his televised address that night in which he set out the first steps towards easing the lockdown.

In his letter, Davey said: “It is also why when, having read press reports that the change in public health messaging had not been signed off by either the chief medical officer or the chief scientific officer, that during your statement to the house on Monday I asked you directly about that. In response you refuted these suggestions and stated that those reports were ‘not right’.

“I was therefore extremely concerned to watch at the press conference just hours later both the chief medical officer or the chief scientific officer refuse to confirm they had directly signed off on the new message of ‘stay alert’ – seemingly in direct contradiction to your answer to me.”

Challenging Johnson to set the record straight, he added: “I think we can both agree that if you have misled parliament, inadvertently or otherwise, that this is incredibly serious. I write to you in the hope that not only can you clear up this discrepancy, but that you attend the house to correct the record at your earliest convenience.”

The Guardian approached Downing Street to seek the prime minister’s response to Davey.

Asked on Monday about Whitty and Vallance’s role in the change from “stay at home” to “stay alert”, a government spokesperson, referring to the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), said: “Sage advice fed into the new strategy as it has throughout the Covid-19 response.”

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