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Health chief Dr Michael McBride raises concerns at 'ill-informed commentary' by academics in letter to QUB

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The letter was sent to Queen's University by Dr Michael McBride

The letter was sent to Queen's University by Dr Michael McBride

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at a Covid briefing at Stormont this week

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at a Covid briefing at Stormont this week

The letter was sent to Queen's University by Dr Michael McBride

Northern Ireland's top doctor warned of the risks caused by "ill-informed commentary" in a letter that raised concerns about opinion expressed by a Queen's University, Belfast academic.

The Department of Health on Friday night released correspondence sent by Dr Michael McBride, the Chief Medical Officer, to the university.

In the letter, Dr McBride expressed "utmost concern" at comments made by one of its experts around the issue of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Dr McBride asked Queen's to "urgently" address the matter, saying the commentary "appears to be in contravention of guidance" issued by senior health officials.

The development came amid a row over academical independence. It is understood a number of concerns have been raised by other officials about commentary from academics around government policy in recent weeks.

In some cases, the academics' institutions were contacted about what had been said.

Earlier this week, Dr Connor Bamford, a virologist at Queen's University, voiced concern in a social media post. He tweeted: "I understand that public health is a sensitive matter at the minute, yet politely requesting that virologists do not engage with the media on such issues at this critical time and only talk about 'the virus' does not bode well for the future of this pandemic."

Dr McBride's letter is understood to relate to a radio interview involving another member of Queen's University in April.

Following the interview, Dr McBride sent a letter by email, stating: "It is with regret that I must write to you on a matter of utmost concern and urgency which has been brought to my attention through the Health and Social Care Board. Colleagues in general practice have contacted the HSCB following publicly made comments by [name redacted] regarding PPE, which appears to be in contravention of the guidance issued by myself and the Chief Nursing Officer."

The letter said the interviewee's "title, affiliation and platform afforded by the media" could lead to "significant weight" being placed on his comments by the public.

It adds: "Not only does this cause confusion, but may put patients and staff at risk if there is a failure to follow scientifically based guidance.

"The added challenge to myself and colleagues from ill-informed commentary and communication risks detracting from our key focus of responding to the pandemic in NI."

In response to wider concerns about academic freedom, the Department of Health has denied that it has tried to stop experts speaking to the media. A spokesperson said Dr McBride's letter was "clearly about a specific issue of concern", and can in no way be accurately represented as an attempt to stifle academic opinion.

They said: "It is not unreasonable to raise concerns about public commentary. To depict this as some kind of assault on academic independence is frankly nonsensical. By the same token, writing to a newspaper about a specific inaccurate or unfair article is not an assault on the freedom of the press.

"Any suggestion that the letter has caused any reluctance among academics to engage with the media is clearly untrue. Academics from QUB have - quite properly - engaged with the media on numerous occasions since April. The Chief Medical Officer and the department are completely supportive of the role played by academics, who have provided informative and instructive comment via the media during the course of the present pandemic."

The First and Deputy First Ministers told the BBC this week they supported the right of academics to give their opinions.

Michelle O'Neill said: "No one should be suppressed from expressing their view. All academics should have the freedom to be able speak up and to articulate their view and give it to the public. The public are quite able to make up their own minds based on what they hear and what they learn themselves."

Arlene Foster was in agreement, commenting: "Everyone will make up their own mind in relation to who they want to believe or follow in these ways."

Belfast Telegraph