Photographer: A. Lwin, via flickr
Richard Horton is at it again. The editor-in-chief of The Lancet pulled no punches on BBC Question Time on Thursday night when he attacked the government for its failure to predict the coronavirus crisis and to act appropriately to protect NHS staff and the British people.
“I’m sorry to say this,” he told Fiona Bruce and her QT panel, “but it’s a national scandal. We shouldn’t be in this position. We knew in the last week of January that this was coming. The message from China was absolutely clear, that a new virus, with pandemic potential, was hitting cities. People were being admitted to hospital, admitted to intensive care units, and dying. And the mortality was growing. We knew that eleven weeks ago.”
“It is a national scandal, we shouldn’t be in this position”@RichardHorton1 says the UK has “wasted February” when we should have been preparing the NHS for coronavirus #bbcqt pic.twitter.com/mcwgBJWrxI
— BBC Question Time (@bbcquestiontime) March 26, 2020
Is that right? If I may be allowed to repeat myself on the subject and quote from a piece I wrote for Reaction just last week, here is what Horton had to say about the coronavirus in an editorial in The Lancet on January 24:
“There is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency…WHO is following this outbreak every minute of every day’, said Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, on Jan 23. A novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak is emerging, but it is not yet a Public Health Emergency of International Concern .”
In consideration of China’s belated decision to lock-down the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, the Lancet – i.e. Horton – went on:
“The shutdowns may seem a drastic step—whether they represent an effective control measure deserves careful investigation and much will likely depend on maintaining trust between authorities and the local population. News media that worsen fears by reporting a “killer virus” only harm efforts to implement a successful and safe infection control strategy.”
To reinforce this last point for a wider audience, Horton tweeted on 24 January:
I don’t know if the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock (now diagnosed with coronavirus), read The Lancet leader, but if he did, I doubt he would have used it as evidence that a plague was about to descend and that civilisation as we have known it would have to be put on hold.
It is certainty arguable that the government, the chief medical officer Chris Whitty and the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance could have reacted faster, and more assuredly, to the events unfolding in China – though the fact that neither Beijing nor the WHO were willing to sound the alarm until late January might have given them pause. But to pretend that the cavalry, in the form of The Lancet, had led the charge from the start deserves to be called for what it is, a practised deceit.
Eleven weeks ago, as of Thursday night, was January 9. Two days later, on January 11, there was indeed a warning in The Lancet about a disturbing trend in Chinese hospitals – a spate of attacks on doctors by patients and their families angry about their treatment by the country’s health system. But of COVID-19 … not a word.