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Senior Doctors Say Boris Johnson's Authority On Covid Is Becoming A "Public Health Issue"

5 min read

Senior medics and scientists have raised concerns that people could be "resistant" to following further Covid restrictions after reports of Downing Street parties.

Ministers are believed to be meeting to agree to the introduction of new "Plan B" Covid measures to help tackle the spread of the new Omicron variant, with a Downing Street press conference expected on Wednesday afternoon.

Boris Johnson told MPs in the House of Commons he was "furious" leaked footage of Number 10 staff joking about a Downing Street party, but continued to deny there had been any breach of the lockdown rules.

A senior civil servant at the Department of Health and Social Care described the government's plans to announce the new restrictions later today as a "decoy".

Speaking to PoliticsHome, one junior doctor who worked on the frontline in a major hospital last year, said Boris Johnson's dwindling authority was becoming a "public health issue".

"They lie and lie and lie, and people die," the doctor said.

"People will ignore these new restrictions and then we will see our wards filling up with sick people.

"Boris Johnson's lack of authority is quickly becoming a public health issue."

An NHS consultant said the health service was already under "significant pressures" and worried whether staff would be able to cope if people did not follow Covid restrictions.

"The hospital seems to have seized up because of a lack of nurses and minimal community care beds," they said.

"If things kicked off again with Covid I don’t think we would have the same resilience as last time."

Stephen Reicher, who sits on the SPI-B Sage sub-committee, which provides advice to ministers on how to ensure people comply with Covid restrictions, told PoliticsHome the row would come with a "cost" in how the pandemic is handled.

"Just at the point where we need a trusted Government to guide us, that trust has been squandered. Again,” he said.

"Explaining the issue is always the response to the offence", he said, comparing the party fall-out to the backlash after it emerged that former senior Number 10 aide Dominic Cummings had travelled more than 300 miles at the height of the first wave of the pandemic. 

"This sense of them and us clearly undermines trust, the data post Cummings illustrates that clearly," Reicher continued.

"The effects of loss of trust on adherence are complex. On the particular issue it often polarises leading some people to adhere more to show 'we' are not like 'them' – some of those angriest at Cummings observed 'lockdown' more stringently as a result.”

"But perhaps most seriously, loss of trust leads to a general loss of influence which affects other aspects of the pandemic response – like getting vaccinated for instance or introducing vaccine mandates."

A planned set of radio and TV appearances from Health Secretary Sajid Javid to encourage people to take the booster jabs were also dropped following the video's release, leading to concerns the row was already damaging the government's communication plans on the virus.

Another NHS consultant backed the introduction of the new measures, saying they believed it was "inevitable" further steps were needed to tackle the new variant, but felt the reports of the Downing Street party had further damaged morale.

"We didn't have a Christmas party. We were too exhausted from fighting this virus. The idea they were listening to music and partying while we were intubating people and having a cry in the toilets is difficult to handle," they told PoliticsHome.

"Hearing the sobs of families who lost people and couldn't be there at the end, knowing they would have to bury them without having the chance to say goodbye will stay with me for the rest of my life.

"And they partied while we dealt with the fallout. It is grotesque."

Dr Julia Patterson, chief executive of campaign group Every Doctor, said: "There is definitely huge concern that people will be resistant to new public health measures; particularly in light of the revelations regarding the Downing Street Christmas party last year.

"If leaders don't lead by example, how can they expect others to comply? It's an absolute disgrace. The NHS is under unbelievable pressure, and I am incredibly concerned about the coming months, Omicron, and what this will all mean for NHS patient and staff safety."

Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Labour MP and NHS doctor Rosena Allin-Khan, said the government's response was an "insult to everyone who followed the rules".

"Last Christmas while we were in lockdown, millions of people were unable to be with their families. Thousands of people waved through their care home windows at loved ones wishing them a merry Christmas from the side of the road," she said.

"People died without that last touch from their daughters, their sons, their wives. Working in intensive care, I wept behind my mask as three children talking to their dying mother on an iPad, begged her to wake up. Countless children now growing up without parents, while parties were held at Number 10."

She added: "This is disgraceful. This is an insult to everyone who followed the rules. It is an insult to everyone who wasn't allowed to say their final goodbye."

Responding to her comments, Johnson said: "I want to repeat what I said earlier on about what happened last year, a year ago, or what may not have happened.

"I want to say this, I share and understand her grief and her feelings. I want to thank her for her service in the NHS, and I know how much this country has been through."

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