Whenever I hear “experts” using the phrase “precautionary principle” I reach for my shot gun, for it always seems to result in disaster.
It was the “precautionary principle” that led to hundreds of thousands of healthy farm animals being slaughtered (at massive public expense) during the government’s grotesquely inept handling of the Foot And Mouth outbreak.
It’s the “precautionary principle” that is leading President Obama to try to impose his $7.4 trillion cloudcuckooland tax – aka Cap And Trade – on the groaning US economy.
And it’s thanks to the “precautionary principle” that our government has so far got away, largely unchallenged, with squandering hundreds of thousands of our hard-earned pounds on its utterly useless and pointless and potentially lethal non-strategy to deal with the current Swine Flu pandemic.
If I speak with some feeling on this issue because I have now seen at first hand just how terrible this Swine Flu is. And the answer is: not very. My son had it the other day – fever, headache, vomiting, over in two days – and if some of his class mates hadn’t been diagnosed with it a week later, we would just have put it down to one of those routine bugs your kids get every now and then and which can be solved very simply with a couple of days rest. Proper, hardcore, nasty, floor-you-for-a-week flu, it most definitely ain’t.
So why the government overreaction? Sure I can appreciate that this strain seems unusually virulent and that there’s a possibility it might mutate into something more evil. But the point, surely, is that in the two months it has been in Britain it has – barring one or two freak cases – shown itself to be so mild that a lot of people have had it without even knowing they’ve had it. The government and its medical advisors at the Health Protection Agency must surely be aware of this fact. Yet they have persisted in treating this evident non-threat as if it were the gravest crisis since the Black Death.
Particularly reprehensible is their overuse of the drug Tamiflu. Until very recently, the government’s official policy has been to give this costly drug (and its potential unpleasant side-effects) not just to people who’ve got the virus but to anyone who has been in contact with them. Where I live in South London this has led to whole schools – staff, pupils,even family members of those working at the school, the majority of them perfectly healthy – being given this drug which they don’t actually need.
This policy has quite rightly been described by doctors as “indefensible.” Last week a Birmingham doctor, Jacky Chambers – director of public health at Heart Of Birmingham NHS Primary care trust – wrote in the British Medical Journal that the HPA’s policy was “inconsistent and confused.”
She said in Birmingham decisions over children receiving prophylaxis (anti-viral drugs for preventative means) had “varied between the whole school, no school and single classes”.
She wrote in some cases tamiflu had been given to “pupils sitting within one metre” of someone with the virus and in others to pupils “listed on the school register as having medical conditions (which include those who wear glasses).”
She conclude: “Mass prophylaxis of healthy people with antiviral drugs is an irrational, indefensible and ineffective response”.
And guess what the Health Protection Agency’s excuse was.
“HPA’s response was influenced by limited data coming out of Mexico and the US, where it seemed to have caused a disproportionate number of deaths and was very infectious in schools,” a spokeswoman said.
“Our initial approach had to be highly precautionary. It would have been irresponsible for it to have been otherwise.”
Ah yes, that dread “p” word. And contained within it, the implicit assumption that some action is always better than no action.
In this case, though, it’s quite clear the opposite is true. Because of its profligate use of Tamiflu, the government has made things worse for everyone in at least three obvious ways.
1. It has needlessly squandered badly needed NHS funds which would have been better spent elsewhere.
2. It has unnecessarily inflicted unpleasant side effects on some of those perfectly healthy people who were given medical advice to take the drug.
( “I do not know but suspect that 10% of recipients will get nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and headaches,” claimed Birmingham public health consultant Andrew Rouse, adding that small numbers of people could develop conditions such as hepatitis and allergic reactions.)
3. It has encouraged the early development of drug-resistant strains of the swine flu virus so that, come this autumn, when we might all be in serious need of Tamiflu the blasted drug will have been rendered ineffective.
The maddening truth about the HPA’s response to swine flu thus far is that it has been nothing more than one giant ****-covering exercise. As has become all too common in this bureaucratic, quango-riddled era of box ticking and due process this is another classic case of a policy adopted not because it is sensible or considered or cost-effective but purely so that the government can say when things go pear-shaped: “Well you can’t say we didn’t try…”