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UK government’s Covid advisers enduring ‘tidal waves of abuse’ | Coronavirus

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The “appalling” scale of abuse, intimidation and threatening behaviour directed at the UK government’s scientific and medical advisers has been laid bare in a Guardian survey of experts working on the pandemic.

Dozens of UK advisers described incidents ranging from coordinated online attacks to death threats and acts of intimidation, such as photos being taken of their homes and shared online and suspicious packages arriving in the post, some containing items with messages scrawled on them.

Further harassment has included vitriolic tweets, emails and phone calls, hate mail, threats of violence, complaints sent to employers, referrals to the General Medical Council watchdog, offensive notes left on cars and abuse shouted through the letterbox. The police have brought charges in a small number of cases when individuals linked to specific threats were identified.

Professor John Edmunds outside the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Professor John Edmunds outside the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Photograph: REUTERS/Alamy

Advisers were not the only ones targeted. The abuse spilled over to their students, colleagues and family members, including partners and children. One adviser who works as a GP said the surgery’s receptionists had been subjected to “vile tirades” from callers as a result of their advisory role.

In another case, an adviser’s child was repeatedly targeted by a teacher who blamed the parent for the government’s lockdown policy. The family did not make a formal complaint because the child’s exam grade depended on the teacher’s assessment.

The Guardian survey was sent to more than 100 scientists, doctors and other researchers who contribute to the advice ministers receive through bodies such as the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the modelling and behavioural science subgroups that support Sage, and other expert groups such as the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). The responses have been anonymised.

Three-quarters of the 42 respondents received significant abuse about government policy, their views on the science, or their research findings, often after being quoted in the media or speaking at open events such as parliamentary inquiries or webinars hosted by organisations such as the UK’s various royal societies.

In an article for the Guardian today, Prof John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of Sage, said he and junior staff were targeted regularly with abusive emails. “If you mention vaccination in the media, particularly vaccination of children, then there is likely to be a reaction,” he writes. “However, this only occurs if one’s comments are picked up by the rightwing press – particularly the Daily Mail.”

One of the advisers surveyed received a death threat on Twitter, which was reported to the police, and experienced a “tidal wave of abuse” whenever they appeared in the media. “A lot of it is misogynistic and a lot of it is deeply unpleasant,” a doctor said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I’m just trying to do the best I can to stop people dying.”

Much of the activity comes from people who feel more threatened by the government’s response to the pandemic than the pandemic itself, even though advisers are not involved in policy decisions. Many advisers say abuse peaks when ever they speak publicly about masks, vaccines, Covid treatments, circuit-breakers or lockdowns, meaning it is increasing with the spread of the Omicron variant.

At the beginning of the pandemic last year, a surge in threatening behaviour led government security experts to brief the advisers on how best to protect themselves, including how to increase computer security and improve their personal safety by varying the time they travelled to work and the route they used, and checking under their car before driving.

Some advisers have had security reviews of their homes and workplaces and alarms and 24-hour surveillance cameras installed, linked to the local police station. A number of universities have hired private security firms to help the experts operate safely and to ensure campaigners and protesters do not disrupt their work. Government cybersecurity experts have removed some sensitive material posted online, but this has not always been possible.

Many advisers reported a stream of hate via Twitter and email, with messages such as “I hope your family die”, “I hope cunts like you are fucking held accountable”, “you will pay for killing our children with vaccines” and “fuck off back to where you came from”. The mainstream media sometimes fuelled the activity by emphasising worst-case scenarios, some respondents said, or legitimised abuse from social media trolls by launching their own attacks on advisers.

The survey found no clear evidence that women received more abuse than men, but some were less willing to describe their experiences. Numerous male counterparts expressed dismay at the intensity and nature of the abuse directed at women they knew. “There seems to be a huge gender imbalance with women being targeted so much more than men,” one said.

Despite the torrent of abuse, several advisers emphasised that they also received praise, thanks and support from members of the public, which counterbalanced the vitriol. “It has vaccinated me against much of the hate,” one said.

Science minister George Freeman.
Science minister George Freeman. Photograph: Tayfun Salcı/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

George Freeman, the science minister, called the abuse “appalling”. He said: “All of us who value our freedom and democracy need to call this out … Scientists and doctors should not be held responsible for decisions taken in good faith by ministers accountable to parliament.”

Chi Onwurah, the shadow science minister, said the attacks were “wholly unacceptable” and the government’s much-delayed online safety bill was desperately needed to counter misinformation.

While many advisers praised the Cabinet Office and the Sage secretariat for setting up “extensive support mechanisms”, some felt they would have benefited from a warning and security advice before signing up.

The attention has led some scientists to keep their heads down, refuse interviews, and consider withdrawing from the public discussion. But most said the abuse had little effect or even emboldened them. “If anything, it motivated me to engage further,” one adviser said. “Clearly my voice was being heard and having an impact.”

Another said: “If we stop speaking up, and stop providing advice, something else will fill the void and it will be misinformation, false narratives and so on. Do we acquiesce and allow them to take over and risk people’s lives?”

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



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17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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