There is a worrying trend towards ignoring facts and free speech in favour of self-righteousness over Covid-19, writes Terry Maguire

Listening to a local morning radio programme recently, I could feel only profound disappointment and a nervous discomfort. On back of his previous evening TV show, the shock-jock presenter was continuing to milk his righteous indignation against people, in his view, putting the lives of others in mortal danger because of their selfish refusal to wear face-coverings when visiting the shops. This behaviour, he was telling us, was so egregious at a critical juncture in the pandemic that it justified the whole of his morning programme and the public censure of those miscreants. It was important that we, his audience, must know that we are on a crusade and he is leading.

The evening before, on TV, he had accosted shoppers on a Belfast garage forecourt for the crime of not wearing face coverings. No doubt his production team were certain they had caught onto the arm of the nation and, having pressed their index fingers onto the wrist, had a genuine reading of the national pulse. Their front-man would shout like a red-top newspaper and we would all be brought into line; face masks would be worn in shops and Covid would be tamed.

The shock-jock was right on one level; wearing face-masks while in shops, including pharmacies, is the law and we must obey the law. Personally, I am happy to wear a face-mask while shopping, but this was not the issue. My issue was that he is wrong on many levels. His claim that the science supports this as a behaviour that will have a significant impact on the spread of SARs-CoV-2 is just plainly wrong. There is simply insufficient good science to support the use of face coverings. If those in authority think that there might be a small or modest effect when used and as part of a package of behaviours — social distancing, hand-washing, isolating and shielding — that is fine, but it is not really following the science; this is diktat.

…one thing I have found over the last six months since Covid 19 first appeared, is that rather than following the science, science has too often been dismissed as irrelevant, as those in authority dictate and free speech is suppressed

Our morning host had two guests on his programme; one, a social commentator, supporting his position. He didn’t even notice the irony when she complained about armchair epidemiologists as she quoted a study from the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science. This study supported her view that face coverings are effective
but, had she taken the time to read the report, she would have found it was really focused on the evidence that the public would wear masks if asked to. In fact, this study was weak on the evidence of effectiveness for face coverings in stopping the spread of the virus.

His other guest, a journalist, objected to his vigilante antics on the garage forecourt and she quoted a paper from Prof Carl Heneghan’s team in Oxford, which contained a meta-analysis of 84 studies into the use of face coverings in infection control and which found little evidence of efficacy. The DJ dismissed her, suggesting she was being selective in her choice of study. This was stunning; a meta-analysis is the gold standard in the scientific method.

To counter, he played an excerpt from his TV programme where a researcher from Queen’s University quoted a single study involving not people, but in this case animals, in fact, guinea pigs. The study methodology was as follows: Uninfected guinea-pigs were placed in one half of a cage, separated from infected animals in the other half by a face-mask, or not. When the face mask was in place, 30 per cent of the uninfected animals became infected and when the mask was not in place, 68 per cent got infected. Eureka! You can’t argue with that! Well, I would start with the obvious question: Since when did guinea-pigs get infected by the SARs-CoV-2 virus? Mink maybe, but not sure about guinea pigs and it turns out the study being referred to was a study on a completely different virus.

Later in the radio programme, a caller badgered the journalist on her credentials and incorrectly stated that face masks are worn during surgery in hospital operating theatres as they reduce infection risk, so that in itself is proof, he stated. This is completely incorrect, as many good studies have shown. It was then that our shock-jock censured the journalist, saying he would not be prepared to discuss, or have suggested, on his show that face coverings are ineffective.

This morning radio show might be light entertainment, and that’s fine, but this presenter demonstrated such a profound ignorance of science and is communicating such a distorted message to his listeners, he should apologise. Science is a process of seeking truth and in doing so, it also deals with considerable uncertainty. Uncertainty is, I admit, difficult for politicians and the general public, but one thing I have found over the last six months since Covid 19 first appeared, is that rather than following the science, science has too often been dismissed as irrelevant, as those in authority dictate and free speech is suppressed.

It is also becoming clear, to me at least, that our media, certainly in the context of Covid 19, has become intolerant of views inconsistent with government policy. This is profoundly worrying and hugely disappointing, but perhaps that’s what happens in times of public crisis.

Terry Maguire
Terry Maguire

Terry Maguire owns two pharmacies in Belfast. He is an honorary senior lecturer at the School of Pharmacy, Queen’s University of Belfast. His research interests include the contribution of community pharmacy to improving public health