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Politicians' mishandling of COVID could be tantamount to 'social murder', says leading medical journal

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·5-min read
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 03:  Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes part in a media briefing in Downing Street on February 3, 2021 in London, England. The UK has now administered in excess of 10 million vaccinations. Daily new cases of Covid-19 were 19,202, down week on week by 25.1%  and 1,322 further deaths, down from 1,449 yesterday. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau-WPA Pool/Getty Images)
The BMJ editorial attacked Boris Johnson's response to the pandemic. (Stefan Rousseau/pool/Getty Images)

A leading medical journal has questioned whether governments’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is tantamount to “social murder” – and something which politicians should be held accountable for.

In a highly-charged editorial in the British Medical Journal, executive editor Dr Kamran Abbasi says leaders must be answerable for their failures “by any national and international constitutional means necessary”.

While the editorial focuses on the actions of politicians worldwide, it also rounds on prime minister Boris Johnson, his senior ministers, and Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance – two of the UK government’s most senior advisers throughout the pandemic.

With the UK having the fifth highest death toll in the world, Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has long been under scrutiny – particularly after coronavirus deaths passed 100,000 last week.

Watch: Boris Johnson’s speech as COVID death toll passed 100,000

The PM has been accused of imposing all three national lockdowns too late, as well as allowing lax border measures for international arrivals.

Specific policy responses to the pandemic – from the creation of NHS Test and Trace to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme – have also been heavily criticised in some quarters.

Downing Street, for its part, has consistently claimed it has been “led by the science” – with Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick having a visible role next to Johnson in fronting the UK’s response at the regular coronavirus press briefings.

Yahoo News UK has approached Downing Street for a full response to the strongly-worded editorial, and will update this article.

‘This might be social murder’

The BMJ editorial takes an uncompromising tone in relation to how the pandemic has been managed – particularly by the Johnson government.

Dr Abbasi’s editorial begins: “Murder is an emotive word. In law, it requires premeditation. Death must be deemed to be unlawful. How could ‘murder’ apply to failures of a pandemic response? Perhaps it can’t, and never will, but it is worth considering.”

In pointed remarks, he asks whether it has been lawful for politicians to “wilfully neglect scientific advice… because to act goes against their political strategy”.

He writes: “At the very least, COVID-19 might be classified as ‘social murder’.

“Today, ‘social murder’ may describe the lack of political attention to social determinants and inequities that exacerbate the pandemic.”

Reflecting upon the sentiment held by many across the UK that the pandemic has been “unchartered territory” and there has been “no playbook” for leaders of many countries to follow, Dr Abbasi dismisses these arguments as out of hand, describing such mitigating factors as “self-serving political lies from the ‘gaslighters in chief’”.

‘How many deaths does it take?’

While the editorial is broad in its scope, Dr Abbasi also hones in on the situation in the UK, asking who in a position of authority has the opportunity and authority to “hold negligent politicians to account?”.

“Experts in science might do so, but official scientific advisers have often struggled to convince politicians to act until it is too late or kept silent to avoid public criticism. So might doctors, with their responsibilities to public health.”

Specifically attacking Johnson’s government – and the press – over its communication with the public, Dr Abbasi condemns how ministers in the UK appear to interact with the media through “sanitised interviews, stage-managed press conferences” that, he claims, have “allowed COVID denial to flourish”.

He questions Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty’s roles in the pandemic response: “How many excess deaths does it take for a chief scientific or medical adviser to resign?”

Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty (L) and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance make their way towards Downing Street in central London on November 24, 2020. - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs that thanks to a potential vaccine "the escape route is in sight" from the coronavirus crisis -- while warning that in the immediate future "Christmas cannot be normal". (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Prof Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

It brings to mind the comments of chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick last March, when he stated that 20,000 deaths during the pandemic would represent a "good outcome". Ten months later, the most accurate figures place the death toll at around 126,000 deaths: six times higher.

The BMJ editorial has been published at the same time as a similarly scathing article by the London School of Economics.

The LSE editorial is written by assistant professor of global health policy Clare Wenham, in which she cites a recent report by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and states that “the policies chosen by governments reflect deeper political agendas and that the tension between the economy and public health is a false dichotomy”.

She adds: “Those governments willing to take the political and economic hit of harsh restrictions early in 2020 are now benefiting from freedom from population restrictions, and in the case of South Korea and China, flourishing economies.

“Trying to appease both public health demands and the libertarian views of the free market has led not only to astronomical death tolls, such as in the US, UK, and Brazil, but to flailing economies.”

Referencing the widely-held belief that the novel coronavirus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Wenham says that “we need to make sure that accountability is not just focused on China but on the many states that delayed their preparedness and response efforts”.

‘Held to account by any means necessary’

Dr Abbasi finishes the BMJ editorial by stating that, given the Conservative Party holds a strong majority in Parliament and no general election is likely for a number of years, the only other avenue open to those angry with the government’s response is “lawful dissent”.

He writes: “What’s left in these circumstances is for citizens to lobby their political representatives for a rapid public inquiry; for professionals in law, science, medicine, and the media, as well as holders of public office, to put their duty to the public above their loyalty to politicians and to speak out, to dissent lawfully, to be active in their calls for justice, especially for disadvantaged groups.

“The ‘social murder’ of populations is more than a relic of a bygone age. It is very real today, exposed and magnified by COVID-19. It cannot be ignored or spun away.

“Politicians must be held to account by legal and electoral means, indeed by any national and international constitutional means necessary. State failures that led us to two million deaths are ‘actions’ and ‘inactions’ that should shame us all.”

Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?