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A period of mourning shouldn’t stop health communications in a pandemic

By Fiona Fox

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

 

I met Prince Philip and the Queen briefly when they visited the Science Media Centre as part of the official re-opening of the newly refurbished Royal Institution in May 2008. The SMC was independent of the RI but housed within it and Baroness Susan Greenfield, the director, was adamant we must be on the schedule.

For weeks, our normal work was interrupted with a stream of bizarre and annoying demands. I forget most, but do remember that we had to have our walls painted when that had only just happened, and that none of the staff or journalists attending on the day were allowed to eat until after the Royal couple had left. I gritted my teeth and accommodated the requests, looking forward to getting the whole thing over. But I drew the line when I was told that police sniffer dogs would be visiting in advance at the exact time we were running a long planned Nature briefing. My refusal caused consternation amongst the RI staff, and I waited to see if I would be taken to the Tower for insubordination. In the end, my refusal to budge led to an apparently immovable object becoming movable and the sniffer dogs arrived later. What I learned from that experience is that otherwise sane rational people go all weird around the Royals, but also that the Palace officials are probably quite reasonable if people just push back.

 

I was reminded of this last week when several colleagues in medical science bodies told me that within hours of Prince Philip’s death they were told to stop any proactive media work with immediate effect. This was followed up a day later with this email:

“Following last week’s email requesting a pause on (institution) comms out of respect for the death of Prince Philip, the Department of Health and Social Care have requested that all proactive media and social media comms are paused for the whole of this week to reflect the period of mourning, except for the most urgent operational and legal activity.

 “This means that no external comms activities should take place on (institution) branded channels, including social media posts, new web content (e.g. news stories) and newsletters.

 “This pause will continue until Monday 19 April.”

 

So every science and health body that is arm’s length from government has been urged not to do any proactive media work for eight days in the middle of a pandemic. This includes organisations that have become household names this year, such as Public Health England, MHRA, UKRI, NHSE, JCVI, NICE, NIHR, etc. Health bodies that are at the heart of our national pandemic response. A pandemic that throws up new developments every day. New vaccine scares, new drugs and treatments that require guidance, new variants that could thwart our roadmap out of lockdown.

My first response was – WHY? Six days later, I am still asking and no one can provide an answer. I can see that a period of mourning where government bodies cease planned media work could sound more reasonable in peace time. I can also see why the people devising these protocols may not have factored in a royal death during a global pandemic. BUT… we are in a pandemic. In these circumstances, surely we just need to say a polite no. The SMC has already had government experts unable to take part in important briefings on vaccines and is currently negotiating one press briefing with experts who might attend but cannot be quoted.

 

A few years ago, I joined friends from the Royal Statistical Society and the Institute for Government in challenging the way in which pre-election (or ‘purdah’) rules were being wrongly applied to independent academics. Utterly sensible rules preventing government departments from making big announcements that could benefit the party in power had wrongly been applied to scientists working in universities. It was striking that we could not find a single politician or scientist who thought this was a good idea. But no one had felt it was their job to challenge it. We did challenge it and we prevailed. The government had never intended these rules to apply to scientists and agreed to reset the pre-election rules to make that clear.

I’m not going to exaggerate the impact of this Prince Philip diktat. It’s only eight days and medical bodies are already finding clever ways around it. But this still feels very wrong. Why are eminent scientists who run these organisations agreeing to abide by these silly rules. Why are they not saying what every reasonable person must be thinking – that in the middle of a pandemic, it is inappropriate and could harm public health. I bet not one of them would be sent to the Tower for treason. I also suspect Prince Philip would be cheering them all the way.

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