The MP on the Vax front line
Fresh from his 10-week stint leading military vaccination teams, former defence minister and Royal Navy medic Andrew Murrison tells Alain Tolhurst he wants government to grasp the nettle of pandemic planning rather than continue to sacrifice liberty and livelihood with future lockdowns
It is almost 20 years since Andrew Murrison donned his uniform – for a tour of Iraq – but this winter the Conservative MP for South West Wiltshire returned to the front line for what he calls the “great patriotic war” against Covid-19.
As a doctor in the naval reserves, he spent 10 weeks at vaccination clinics in London and the South West, describing the experience as “one of the most rewarding things” he has done in medicine.
“People were just really grateful to be getting a jab,” he says. “For some of them, it was a massive relief. Some had not been out for a year and this was their first outing, to see me to get a jab.
“One or two were in tears; the reaction was just overwhelming, extremely heartwarming. It was just brilliant to be part of delivering, in a very small way, the solution, the way out of this.”
Murrison, who served in the Royal Navy between 1984 and 2000, leaving at the level of surgeon-commander before being recalled in 2003 as a naval reserve officer for a six-month tour of Iraq, led a vaccination team of service personnel delivering first and second doses of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs to thousands of people.
In London he worked out of the Broadway Theatre in Barking, before switching to Salisbury Cathedral where he administered vaccines with added organ accompaniment.
Murrison says the transition from Westminster to Covid-warrior was surprisingly smooth.
“It was a bit like [Iraq] in 2003, where very quickly I ceased to be an MP and became a sort of cynical observer of the political situation,” he recalls of his time as a battle group medical officer near Basra.
“I remember shouting at the television in Iraq just like everybody else, and I suddenly thought, ‘Hang on, I’m actually a politician, it’s my fault as well as anybody else’s’ – despite the fact I was against the Iraq war.
“You find yourself slipping into that way of thinking, so very soon I was simply a medical officer in a vaccination team, churning through all the work on the front line, which is very healthy for any politician.”
Murrison suggests MPs can get too obsessed with what goes on in the Commons, and feels it was important to be “out there doing stuff” rather than being “closeted in the Palace ofWestminster all the time”.
It's one of the most rewarding things i've done in medicine
As well as being massively refreshing” and a privilege to be involved, Murrison says participating in the programme helped him identify the challenges and hurdles to overcome – as opposed to “a prism of Whitehall and briefing notes”.
Close up, things looked very different to how they might be imagined “sitting behind your desk,” the 60-year-old says, adding that it’s impossible to understand the pressure on healthcare staff and their workloads without being involved first-hand.
He also says the involvement of the armed forces in the vaccine rollout, named Operation Rescript, has done a huge amount for civilian-military relations, particularly in parts of the country unused to seeing soldiers in the community.
“In the breach, whatever the threat, the Queen’s men and women belong to the public they serve,” he adds.
“That sense of proprietorship is healthy in any democracy. There’s no doubt it’s been advanced during this crisis.”
In his time jabbing, the former minister also saw first-hand issues with vaccine hesitancy among some communities, with recent statistics revealing reluctance is more than three times higher for Black Britons than for the wider population.
Murrison labels it “The Constant Gardener effect” after the John le Carré novel in which a big pharmaceutical company carries out unethical clinical trials in the developing world.
“You pick up from people where their thinking is on this matter. And the truth is that many feel they have to be sceptical about anything government ordains, so there’s a natural reluctance to be informed by edict from politicians, and government in general,” he says.
“That’s not any specific government, it’s government in general, and also a scepticism around the pharmaceutical industry.
“Now, the pharmaceutical industry, let’s be clear, has delivered the way out of this, and our hats off to them for doing something that is truly remarkable, and it doesn’t seem to me they’ve necessarily got a lot of the credit. However there’s still a sense of Big Pharma being a problem.”
Murrison says there is “no one magical answer” to deal with hesitancy, but that it’s about involving community leaders and role models.
Pointing to a poster in his office in Portcullis House, he says: “We need more Walter Tulls,” referring to the pioneering Black footballer, who was killed in action during the First World War. He adds: “There’s a role model from 100 years ago; a remarkable man. We need more of those who are prepared to speak out.”
Murrison’s experience also sharpened his thinking about pandemic planning, and how the UK prepares for the next war, likely to be “fought against another petri-dish protagonist”.
He wants a discussion now about what will be the “trigger points” for future government intervention like that seen in this pandemic, rather than delaying it to the planned inquiry which may not report back for several years.
“We have to have that conversation, because otherwise the [danger] is we become so risk-averse that at the first sniff of a problem we will be tempted to lock down, and that has catastrophic consequences in terms of healthcare, mental health, the economy, the prospects for young people, and, bluntly, liberty.
“And we need to better understand what the quantum is in terms of lives lost. These are difficult conversations and ones a politician will try to avoid, but the fact of the matter is we had a loss of 28,000 lives during the bad flu year recently.
“We also seem to be accepting of the fact that 90,000 people die every year of smoking-related diseases, yet we don’t talk about banning cigarettes, which would be far less intrusive on the generality of liberty and livelihood than a lockdown.”
He says politicians find it very difficult to face down accusations they haven’t acted in the event of a crisis, and therefore have taken the advice of expert modelling – which he says has often been “way out” – and repeatedly locked down.
“Of course, the long tail to this is that people will die as a consequence of not having been treated in a timely manner.
“There may also be a mental health ‘long tail’ to this, but pinning that on decision-makers now is far more difficult than the immediacy of those awful numbers that have been popping up on our television screens every night.
“That’s the problem with this in policy terms.”
Describing the scientific experts as “fairly stovepipe in their appreciation of the consequences of the advice they may give,” he says there has been an over-reliance on their advice.
“They have an interest in this, so if you’re a medical scientist, your principal concern is to save life from the problem that has been presented to you,” he adds.
“It is for others to determine what the wider consequences are. But I’m afraid the buck does stop with politicians, ultimately, who are tasked with making those judgments.”
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