The new dictatorship of the medical advisors

One of the most unusual things about Dr. Anthony Fauci is this: For a man so well known, globally, he is a remarkably low ranking official. To such an extent, in fact, that it is fair to say that most readers do not even know what his job title is. Go on there: Have a think for a moment and see if you remember.

No? Well, Fauci is the Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases. An agency so obscure that despite having held the job since being appointed in 1984 by Ronald Reagan, basically nobody had ever heard of him, or his agency, before January of 2020.

Fauci has no executive role, outside of his own agency, which is a small fish in the big pond of American Government. His power, such as it is, has come almost entirely from being perceived by the US media, and parts of the public, as an expert advisor to two American Presidents on Covid. The parallels with our own Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Holohan, are clear enough for anybody to see.

The question of Dr. Fauci’s power, or lack of it, is interesting because of his appearance, yesterday morning, on ABC News, in which he said this:

To be fair to Fauci: He cannot control what questions he is asked. But he can control what his answers are. And the only reasonable answer for any medical advisor to a question like that is as follows:

“Sorry, that is a policy question, and a matter for those elected to make policy”

Why, you might ask, should Fauci have declined to give his personal opinion on the matter? The answer is simple: He is paid an annual salary to advise political leaders, not the public. Across the western world, but in the US and Ireland as particular examples, that line has been blurred beyond all recognition, with real, lasting, and deeply negative consequences.

In simple terms, we have created a new barrier between the politicians, and the public: Covid scientists. By answering the question above, in the way he did, Fauci knowingly and consciously created a political problem for his boss. Now, if Biden ever decides that it is time to lift the requirement for masks on airplanes, the first port of call for the media will be Dr. Fauci, to seek his reaction to his boss’s decision to over-rule him. Since very few politicians are ever likely to be qualified scientists in the field of epidemiology, they are at an immediate public and political disadvantage. This gulf was used, with utter glee, by parts of the media to undermine the last American President.

We see the same thing play out here, in Ireland: Last week, certain of our colleagues in the media had a minor public meltdown at the idea that they could no longer speak directly to NPHET and Dr. Holohan.

The problem here is simple enough: The roles of a politician and a covid scientist are different. A covid scientist has one duty, and one duty alone: To study covid, and recommend policies to combat it. Politicians, by contrast, have a much wider set of duties: they are responsible for public transport. And the economy. And health. And education. And well, almost anything the public might be unhappy about in a given day.

Managing all of those competing issues and interests requires a different set of skills, and taking a much wider view, than focusing on one issue does. Politicians are required to make decisions weekly, if not more often, which prioritise one issue over another. For example, a politician who prioritises early childhood health care will probably do so by taking money from some other worthy priority.

Often, they are criticised for this, which is normal. It is also normal to be criticised by experts in a particular area about their area being neglected.

What is not normal – or, at least, what has never been normal to date – is the idea that politicians should have to meet with the public approval of their own advisors before enacting a policy. That is new. And highly undemocratic, and dangerous.

In Ireland, it is no exaggeration to say that Dr. Holohan wields objectively more political power over the political narrative in the country at a given time than the leader of the opposition does. People expect Mary Lou McDonald to disapprove of the Government. When she does, there is no sense of crisis.

But when the leader of the Government’s own advisory team has his own public profile, public platform, and public opinions – which are not limited to simply echoing Government policy – then that does have the potential to create a sense of crisis.

Note, for example, that when the new restrictions were announced on Friday, the first port of call for our journalists was Dr. Holohan, to ask him whether he was okay with the moving of pub closing back from 5pm to 8pm. The good Doctor benignly agreed that he was.

But what if he had not been? What if he had said it was “disappointing”?

In both Ireland, and the USA, politicians have contrived – in partnership with the media – to create an effective dictatorship of covid science. The problem with that is that Governments have become almost exclusively focused on winning the public approval of their own advisors on one issue, rather than Governing for the whole country.

This does not happen in any other area of public policy. We do not see journalists interviewing the Government’s advisors on economic policy to ascertain whether they approve of Government decisions.

If you want to know why Governments are so conservative on Covid, this is the answer. By way of proof, look to the UK, which, not coincidentally, is one of the oldest mainly democratic political systems on earth, where the differences between politicians and advisors are absolutely clear. If any of you know what Professor Chris Whitty’s personal opinion on covid restrictions are, be sure to let us know, because unlike Holohan and Fauci, he has been scrupulous about not saying so.

As a result, the UK Government has been much freer in terms of its ability to make calls in both directions and, it is fair to say, there has been much more open debate about those calls, because there is no sense whatsoever that they have been handed down on stone tablets by infallible “experts”.

The UK system is vastly healthier than our own, in this writers’ opinion. And it should be very clear and obvious what the reason for that is.

In Holohan and Fauci, to use just two examples, Covid has spurred too many Governments on to create monsters more powerful than themselves.

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