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Why did the government have such a problem with the truth?

Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty - Credit: PA

When the Yorkshire Post ran an accurate story about vaccines being diverted to other regions Tory ministers and MPs rounded on the newspaper. JAMES MITCHINSON, its editor, says their response raises several questions.

You may not recall it. There have been so many, you may not even have seen it. Early June last year health minister Helen Whately was being questioned about policy decisions, vis-a-vis the Covid-19 pandemic. In the exchange with Kay Burley on Sky News, it was clear that Whately was going to attempt to protect policy decisions by placing responsibility for outcomes with others.

“You can’t stick this on the scientists,” implores Burley. “Well, I can,” replies the minister, to an incredulous news anchor.

What followed was an undignified scrabble to trample her Freudian slip into the ashes of a bin fire of an interview in which one of two things happened: either we got an inadvertent glimpse into the strategy, forged by Dominic Cummings and adopted by this government to insulate it from criticism amid the pandemic, or Whately froze, panicked and – as they say – mis-spoke.

Fast-forwards to last week. There are vaccines in production and the roll-out, you have to say, is as reassuring as it is impressive. One thing is clear; we owe a debt of thanks to the NHS workers and volunteers we cannot hope to repay.

However, concerns about supply have been mounting. No question. So when the Yorkshire Post reporter Robyn Vinter was alerted to the prospect of vaccines being diverted from our region to others, she pursued it by asking questions. She asked questions of: clinical commissioning groups, local authorities, several MPs (on all sides), the Department of Health and NHS England. In total, she spent 10 hours researching, sense-checking and corroborating the story. We also had it on good authority from some of the most senior executives in local government that our story was absolutely correct.

As it is every night, the front page, with her story, was posted on Twitter ahead of the evening’s televised newspaper reviews. What followed was an intense flurry of intimidating claims from a number of MPs, including Philip Davies, Robbie Moore, Alec Shelbrooke, Alexander Stafford and Simon Clarke who lambasted the article as “dangerous and wrong”. Most worryingly, at least as far as I was concerned, was the criticism from the vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi, who stated: “This is wrong, Yorkshire’s allocation this week is 13%, next week it’s 13%.”

Never in my career have I been subjected to a concerted, co-ordinated attack like this. It was a discombobulating, disorienting, paranoia-inducing experience. “Dangerous and wrong” – Lexicon de Donald. Trumpian reappropriation of the truth to serve the ruling party. But it almost worked.

Stressed and unable to think straight, I was befuddled with indecision, riddled with self-doubt – not because of any misgivings about the quality of Robyn’s journalism but because of the state of mind induced in me by the barrage of objections coming from so many angles. 

A few hours later, Dr Nikita Kanani, director of primary care for NHS England confirmed in an interview for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that, in actual fact, Robyn’s journalism was as accurate as it was thorough. Asked by Mishal Husain: does that mean that vaccine supply is being diverted away from the areas which have got these higher rates of vaccination so Yorkshire and the North East?

Dr Kanani: “Yes, I really understand my colleagues’ frustration, particularly in this case it happens to be in the northern areas. They’ve done an incredible job getting through their cohort priorities, one and two, so their care home staff and residents, their over 80s and their health and social care staff.” 

The Yorkshire Post was vindicated. That someone of such repute – highly trusted with bullet-proof clinical credentials – had confirmed our story was true was a relief. But it brings us to a place that fills me with unease and it should you, too. Think about it: is the fact that vaccines are being diverted from one region to others in order to protect the most vulnerable, regardless of where they live, as quickly as possible even controversial? I would say, frankly, the opposite. To any human being with a modicum of compassion and common sense, it seems sensible.

So why did that cabal of the prime minister’s men seek to discredit me, my reporter and my title? Why not steadfastly support the director of primary care – rather than trying to ‘stick it on the science’ – and stand by the rigour of the thinking underpinning the decision to divert vaccines to the most needy?

Why round on the editor of a regional newspaper, whose journalist has worked tirelessly to stand up a story – in the face of obfuscation and distraction, it has to be said – in order to belittle and undermine us? I remain puzzled and think it best to leave the speculation and conjecture to others; that is not our stock-in-trade at the Yorkshire Post. Every step of the way, we have done our utmost to elicit facts and information to convey to our readers faithfully so that the communities we represent can best protect their loved ones, and get on the road to some semblance of normality.

My belief remains constant: this is a national effort, in the national interest and the effectiveness of our collective response to the perils of the pandemic must be built on foundations of trust and transparency because without those things, the public will become evermore confused, frightened and sceptical of whose interests are the priority of this government. 

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