England's chief medical officer has written to Jacob Rees-Mogg condemning his “unacceptable” comments comparing a doctor-turned-whistleblower who advised on no-deal Brexit planning to disgraced anti-vaccine campaigner Andrew Wakefield.
Dame Sally Davies’ unprecedented intervention followed a high-profile spat this week between the leader of the Commons and David Nicholl, a neurologist who gave expert input to the government’s Operation Yellowhammer contingency preparations.
The leading Brexiteer accused Nicholls of “fearmongering” after the doctor questioned him about the level of harm the government was prepared to accept to its citizens in a no-deal scenario. Nicholl, who drafted a risk register of epilepsy and neurology drugs to inform plans to prioritise medicines imports earlier this year, said he had not been consulted on refreshed no-deal plans following the extension of the Brexit deadline to 31 October.
Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, the minister said Nicholl was “as irresponsible as Dr Wakefield”, who was struck off the medical register after publishing since-debunked claims about links between the MMR vaccine and autism.
In her letter yesterday, Davies, the government’s most senior medical adviser, said: “Comparing an established medical expert to a man who was struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council, and described by them as ‘dishonest, irresponsible and showed callous disregard for the distress and pain of children’ is going too far and is frankly unacceptable.
“The fraudulent and incorrect measles campaign launched by this individual resulted in the re-emergence of measles in this country,” Davies said.
Last month the World Health Organisation rescinded the UK’s measles-free status after 231 cases emerged in the first quarter of 2019.
The CMO typically does not criticise ministers publicly on matters of public health policy, preferring to build social capital to influence government decisions.
In a recent interview with CSW, Davies said: “There’s no point in me berating ministers in public. They’ll never listen to me again. They won’t trust me. They won’t do what I think they need to do.”
But with less than a month remaining until she steps down from her post to become master of Trinity College Cambridge, the renowned haematologist said she felt “compelled” to express her “sincere disappointment in the disrespectful way” Rees-Mogg had spoken to and about Nicholl.
“Doctors are among the most trusted people in out country; it is always worth listening to what they have to say with respect,” she said.
The CMO said plans were now in place that should ensure medicines supplies will not be disrupted in the event of a no-deal Brexit, but that “questions regarding the ramifications of a disrupted distribution and consequent risk to life are, however, legitimate”.
Yesterday Nicholl said he would sue Rees-Mogg if he repeated the Wakefield jibe outside the House of Commons, where his comments would not be covered by parliamentary privilege. “This is nothing really to do with Brexit. This is about the bullying of any experts and bullying of whistleblowers,” he said.
The North East Somerset MP backed down from his comments yesterday evening following criticism from Davies and others, saying in a statement: “I apologise to Dr Nicholl for the comparison with Dr Wakefield. I have the utmost respect for all of the country’s hardworking medical professionals and the work they do in caring for the people of this country.
“The government is working closely with the NHS, industry and distributors to help ensure the supply of medicine and medical products remains uninterrupted once we leave the EU on 31 October, whatever the circumstances.”
Welcoming the apology, health secretary Matt Hancock said: "It's vital clinicians can provide expert advice. I defend to the hilt the right of clinicians and civil servants to provide advice without fear or favour."