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The UK government ignore an app created by scientists and independent researchers, and instead funds its own surveillance app. Instead of speaking to us like responsible, educated adults the government acts as if we are illiterate and uses social media and tech giants to censor us online. Meanwhile the governments of Scotland and Wales and some NHS trusts suggest people use the ZOE symptom tracker app. Silence from the UK Government.

Seagulls have gone back out to sea to fish now there are no rich pickings dropped by people – Image by Steve Bidmead from Pixabay

Here is a quote from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, outlining the rub:

“The commercial drivers of NCD epidemics are largely ignored, while commitments to partnerships and multi-stakeholder platforms involving alcohol and food producers are often seen as ignoring conflicts between health objectives and economic interests.”

Then there is secrecy about who is in the SAGE committee. Meanwhile, Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube have all been censoring messages online about COVID-19. Our response so far has had its problems. The UK government stopped tracking and contact tracing in early mid March, when it could have contained the virus. Testing and protective equipment have been delayed. Government principles on engaging with industry, particularly unhealthy commodity stakeholders is known to disrupt and undermine public health initiatives. It still happens. Is this concealed conflict of interest also influencing the government’s response to COVID-19? Should public health bodies be engaging with industry stakeholders at all? Is it not leaving them exposed to, at the very least, question? Surely the press ought to be able to censor government health messages if they are misinformation?

The UK government has formed a group called SAGE to advise on our response to COVID-19 and SARS-COV2. Initially there was a reluctance to name the people in SAGE, but this has now happened as the Guardian article reveals. Meanwhile, Public Health England have never come clean about engagement with “unhealthy commodity stakeholders” such as tobacco and pharmaceuticals and have an existing relationship with GSK from their smoking cessation guidelines., GlaxoSmithKline are also represented in SAGE

Despite reports on addiction to drugs, they are still big business backed by government Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

An app has been available since mid March, created by King’s College Hospital with independent researchers studying human body health. ZOE launched the C-19 Symptom Tracker and governments, local councils and NHS trusts in Scotland and Wales have been suggesting people self-report each day, even if they are well, to track the spread of virus and help it stop. This provides a way to potentially end the lockdown. But the UK government ignore it and instead are funding a new surveillance app, which tells you how close you are to others and how long you have been outside. This is treating us like responsible adults versus taking away our personal responsibility and tracking our actions remotely. If you’d like to join an independent, science backed, people’s movement, please download the app from COVID.JOINZOE.COM – after all when did politics ever drive social progress?

Doesn’t seem as if the government puts public interests first – Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

As well as developing a surveillance app, there has been censorship about COVID-19 information. Is censorship ever objective enough? This Nature article suggests that the censorship actually fans the flames of misinformation. An example of this content suppression is a community support page for Falmouth and Penryn has become so buried on Facebook, it can almost not be found. An exact word search does not bring the page up. It doesn’t break any rules so it is there, but hidden and buried in the groups section. General search brings up just official pages. Engagement for this page has been reduced by 90% by Facebook’s action and yet isolated people are using it to get necessary food boxes. This seems like another double standard.

Data Collected

Here is data collected from the Symptom Tracker app. There is no need for the government to spend millions more and we do not need to be treated like children. This is 2020 not the medieval age. Our government are treating us like an illiterate nation of people who rely on relics, old wives’ tales and superstition. This app is not happening behind closed doors in secrecy. It is there for researchers, data analysts, journalists or members of the public to see, contribute to and discuss. Don’t take my word for it. Search for the app on Twitter. Scotland and Wales, the NHS and regional councils back it. Westminster? Not a peep. SIlence.

The difference between discussion and actual affront or criticism seems forgotten – Image by Christopher Ross from Pixabay

What value did we receive from letters from Number 10 about the lockdown? Was this worth spending £5.7million of taxpayers money on rather than PPE equipment for frontline staff? Secondly, there is a symptom tracker app already in use, created by King’s College London and ZOE, scientific research on how human bodies respond to food. The governments of Scotland and Wales are asking people to use it, as are NHS trusts and their county councils are too. Silence from @GovUK. Not a word. Instead they are spending on another app that has a much further reach into our lives. Instead of even trying to ask us, like responsible adults, to report our symptoms daily so researchers have data about the spread of the virus, the government is funding an app that monitors how close we are to other people and how long we are spending outside. Wired report on this.

chunk of eatwell guide

Massive conflicts of interest from food and drink industry funding into research

Meanwhile, the News Scientist has voiced concern over the advice used by the UK government, saying it mentions social distancing often but barely includes any mention of testing, the main strategy advised by the World Health Organisation. In other countries, a target was set for how long lockdown would last and was extended in public political debate. In the UK, lockdown was set for an indefinite period. An independent researcher from Liverpool, Greg Dropkin, has published this report on the UK lockdown and looks at the surveillance apps being launched around the world. Dropkin’s paper on UK Lockdown forecasts with:

The first UK reported case of COVID-19 occurred on 31 January 2020, and a lockdown of unknown duration started on 24 March 202o.

Unknown duration. Bound to throw the fruit into the ant colony of social media divisive opinion. Predictably, instead of people listening to different views and creating a melting pot, people turned on each other without a glance at the government. There was no direction or leadership. Statements were made about “evidence-based” advice without any basis of this evidence provided. Where have I seen that before? Public Health England’s concealed use of funding from “unhealthy commodity stakeholders” in nutrition, smoking cessation and other public health matters for a start.

On Public Health England’s comments on healthy eating have been withdrawn, with the reason given that it is more than 3 years old. So is a lot of information. The Eatwell Guide was published in 2016. Massive inconsistency. This is the healthy eating advice from PHE. They have hidden their justifications for working with the food and drinks consortium and big grocers. No transparency there then. See what the NHS say about healthy eating too:

New Eatwell Guide says a healthy diet should now include more fruit, vegetables and starchy carbohydrates, and fewer sugary foods and drinks.”

Here is a blog by Public Health Matters on the government website, which denies the flip flopping in the news about dietary advice to be none of the responsibility of the advice of Public Health England. Quite clearly not. Not.

What we all need is advice that reflects the best available evidence, reported and interpreted accurately in helpful and meaningful terms. This approach has been the cornerstone of UK government advice and the approach that Public Health England looks to deliver.

However, the British Medical Journal reveals how government responded to malnutrition:

“For most of human history including much of the 20th century, insufficient food was the greatest nutritional challenge. To tackle this, government sought to stimulate the production and distribution of as much inexpensive food as possible, in particular starchy (high carbohydrate) staple commodities and their shelf stable processed products. At the time, a global pandemic of obesity and chronic diseases from the widespread availability of inexpensive, unhealthy food was inconceivable.”

Engaging with Stakeholders

To me, the government document linked here is just lip service to give the appearance of public protection against conflict of interest. We ought to demand transparency in our centralised government and to clean up integrity for public sector bodies to declare which principles have been breached, when and by whom. We need this urgently to ensure that public health matters can be trusted during this global pandemic. While many countries are emerging from lockdown, the UK and US are not achieving results.

Trust has been so eroded, even between friends and family – Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Perhaps the lack of public trust has something to do with this disagreement? On one hand, there are the finger wagers: people sitting in the cheap seats judging, criticizing and assessing others’ actions and silencing any different perspectives. On the other hand are the dissenters, filling in the gaps with their own suspicions. With big tech companies given powers to censor media and newspapers depending on company sponsorship, we are not getting clear direction, which could unite the nation with a shared purpose.

Cleaning up Integrity

Sadly, this has not happened before the COVID-19 response and as a result, people are calling each other names on social media to browbeat everyone into obedience and compliance. We need leadership, firm guidelines and accountability as well as transparency to try to get the public’s trust back in government health policy. Right now, the nation is divided by the lack of purpose, leadership and direction, which, in my view, fractures public opinion into unhelpful disagreement.

The first COVID-19 case was detected in the UK on 31 January and yet the government pulled its feet while the virus spread.

The government’s page entitled ‘Principles for Engaging with Industry Stakeholders warns that

“The risks of engaging with industry can include allowing undue influence, sending confusing messages because of conflicts of interest, and reputational damage to public sector”

However, the report contradicts itself by saying:

“Although industry objectives are often at odds with efforts to improve public health, it is recognised that some industries and commercial organisations can play a role in counteracting the negative impact of the products and services they profit from.”

However, they know full well that:

“But this is a complex field, and well-documented experience suggests that industries – such as the tobacco and alcohol industries – are subtle in hiding their true motivations and objectives. They can also use aggressive tactics to disrupt and undermine positive actions, from public health policy and initiatives”.

It doesn’t seem all that complex if there are clear boundaries. If public health advice is science-based, this would be clearly credited with sources of information and funding to be scrutinised by qualified professionals with no conflicts of interest. If the government publishes these statements but doesn’t ensure the principles are followed, they may as well not exist. I think we need a full declaration of interest behind public health drives, such as smoking cessation or alcohol control and, not covered in medical education and very important, nutrition.

There are no questions when nothing is hidden – Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

So why haven’t we had the transparency this promises or the exposure of the conduct by Public Health England that has led to such distrust and suspicion for our press, government and public sector bodies?

This statement made in a medical journal in Australia illustrates why official advice on areas such as health have got to put public interests first and not be deceptive.

“Recommendations issued by professional bodies have enormous potential impact upon public health and there is a need for the highest levels of scrutiny and transparency in their development”

Smoking cessation is particularly important during a global pandemic of a respiratory disease that kills more people with heart disease, obesity, diabetes and Cancer, all of which are potentially avoidable with good advice. Funded research, however, will say that vaping, smoking, drinking and unhealthy food are not linked to these diseases, while dietary supplements and healthy eating does not cure or treat them either.

However, the National Obesity Forum working with Public Health Collaboration would say otherwise, that “Eating Fats, Cutting out Carbs and Avoiding Snacking can reverse obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Food manufacturers funding nutrition research has this impact:

These real and perceived conflicts of interest can undermine the credibility of research and researchers, resulting in an erosion of trust amongst the general public and policy makers and scepticism of published research – (Researchgate)

Despite these costs, public health does not put public before profit

“health matters” but clearly not more than industry money.

A look at government advice from Public Health England on stopping smoking is blatantly skewed to promote the interests of industry, ie pharmaceutical companies selling prescription medications and e-cigarette companies. The onus, as usual, in plonked firmly in the lap of individuals. An infographic shows that the impact on the NHS from smoking is £2.6bn. That’s our fault is it? Not if we were encouraged to just stop smoking.

At the very end of the Public Health England report it says:

 Four of the studies were funded by the manufacturer of ECs tested, presenting a conflict of interest which may bias findings (ECs = e-cigarettes).

How far from the best interests of public health can that be? How can we not hold our government to account for bad advice and putting industry interests before public health? A medical journal in Australia shows how unassisted quits are much more successful than official advice, which actively promotes vaping, despite it not being proven to be 95% safer than smoking, although passive smoking for others is much reduced. PHE insist that people are misguided to think nicotine is the problem. If you have even considered they are right, I recommend you watch The Insider about when Big Tobacco was exposed and successfully sued for this exact lie. Public Health England want neither the responsibility nor to be accountable for the outcomes from their advice. How is this being allowed to happen

We all knew it or suspected it. The Eatwell Guide is the official nutrition advice we get in NHS pamphlets, on their website and in reports claiming to be “evidence-based” on the Public Health England website. Government rhetoric has become riddled with adjectives that oh just protest too much. It is very much “because I told you so”.

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