The government’s inaction on swine flu threatens lives

The coalition’s refusal to offer the under-fives vaccination could develop into a crisis.

It's difficult for me to see how the government's refusal to offer babies vaccination against swine flu won't snowball into a major political crisis for the coalition. You can take away child benefit, you can triple the cost of university education, you can stand by and do nothing while the bankers that got us into the current economic mess trouser tens of millions in bonuses. But when your penny-pinching appears to be putting children's lives at risk voters are going to start getting seriously annoyed.

Three-year-old Lana Ameen died on Boxing Day at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool, apparently from swine flu, three weeks after her parents were told she wasn't eligible for the vaccine. The story made the front page of last Friday's Daily Mail (not good news for the so far comparatively Teflon coalition). Her anguished father – a doctor – said: "My medical colleagues and I have no doubt that if my darling daughter had been vaccinated, she would still be alive today. That's why the government must wake up and change their immunisation policy urgently."

As of Friday, the government said there had been 112 flu deaths since October – six of them children under five. How many of those losses could have been prevented if the children had been offered jabs? My wife tried to get our 20-month-old daughter, Isobel, inoculated against swine flu just before Christmas. Last year's advice from the then chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, was still ringing in my ears.

Back in November 2009 – under Gordon Brown's Labour government – the jab was made available to all under-fives. "We consider them to be seriously at risk," Donaldson said. "Parents are standing by intensive-care beds in life-and-death situations. We are out to save lives."

He warned that this is a disease which is entirely preventable but which kills healthy children and adults. There is no evidence the vaccine carries any risks, he said, so get your children vaccinated. We were surprised when our local GP in south-west London refused to protect Isobel against this terrible illness. She said the disease was not yet at the pandemic stage so they didn't want to offer it to children. I said I'd rather not take the risk of waiting to find out whether or not it is going to become a pandemic.

She said that Isobel is not in one of the at-risk groups as designated by the government, because she has not been hospitalised for breathing difficulties or been diagnosed with asthma. I said that she has a history of chronic chestiness and has been prescribed a ventolin inhaler; and in any case, swine flu is an illness that seems to kill otherwise healthy people. Eventually the doctor admitted that I could go to a private clinic to get Isobel immunised if I wished. I asked if, given that this is a potentially fatal disease that is entirely preventable, it would be overprotective of me to do that? She said no, absolutely not – it would probably be quite sensible.

It is difficult not to conclude that the only thing stopping that GP from giving Isobel the jab was money. A private clinic – the Parkside Hospital in Wimbledon – was offering flu vaccines on a walk-in basis for £10, but had run out by the time we contacted them. So instead we wait, and hope that our child doesn't go the way of Lana Ameen – dead for the price of an injection that would have cost the NHS £6.

The NHS press officer I spoke to insisted the flu jab is not being refused to under-fives for financial reasons, or due to any shortage, or because the risks of taking the jab outweigh the reward.

So, why then? The spokesman pointed me in the direction of the somewhat cryptic advice put out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on 30 December. It says that children do not need the flu vaccine because they make up "only a very small proportion of those with severe disease", adding that "the greatest gain will be achieved in increasing vaccine uptake in the clinical risk groups".

According to the government, 18 out of the 661 patients in NHS critical-care beds with confirmed cases of swine flu on 13 January were under-fives. For some reason – which after conversations with my doctor, the local health authority, the Department of Health, the British Medical Association and others still eludes me – offering protection against flu to those under-fives is not a government priority.

When my daughter was born at Kingston Hospital's amazing maternity unit in February 2009 she had severe breathing difficulties and had to spend five days on life support.

At the time I thanked God and Gordon Brown for the money Labour at pumped into the NHS, because I don't think she would have received better care anywhere else in the world, or at any price. I can't help feeling that – judging from personal experience – her health is in less safe hands under the current government.

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette.

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.