Bird flu is back. The very name was enough to propel it on to front pages last week, even in the midst of the all-consuming Bowie tribute fest. The virus (pictured above) has hit a 'broiler flock' of 38,000 chickens in Dunfermline. If you want to understand why disease in poultry is likely to spread, you need look no further than the conditions in which, typically, the wretched creatures in such flocks are kept.
The risk to human life is rated 'very low' by veterinary specialists. But it was not always so. It is 11 years since the chief medical officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, predicted a bird flu pandemic. He stated repeatedly – we were led to understand it was his expert opinion – that it would 'probably' kill about 50,000 people in Britain but that a death toll of 750,000 was 'not impossible'. This was a staggering thought, raising the spectre of a modern plague.
For weeks the television was full of pictures of people around the world wearing masks, accompanied by alarmist speculation that, soon, everyone would be required to wear one. Sir Liam believed that, in order to control the disease, foreign travel might have to be restricted.
On the recommendation of the chief medical officer, the UK government ordered 14.6 million doses of an anti-viral drug called Tamiflu – enough for 25% of the population. Later it stockpiled a further 25.4 million doses at a total of cost of around £424 million. All this was good news for the drug companies, Roche in particular, as well as for the manufacturers of face masks. Only a few deluded heretics – I confess to having been one of them – dared to suggest that Sir Liam's response amounted to fatuous posturing. I remember receiving a letter from someone senior in the Scottish health department warning me that I would be proved wrong.
The World Health Organisation, which had recommended the use of Tamiflu to combat bird flu in humans and its listing as an essential medicine in every country, still cannot quite accept that the pandemic never happened. I checked its website yesterday and discovered without surprise that bird flu has caused 'many human deaths'. I suppose it depends what they mean by 'many'. Every year in Scotland, 18,000 people die of heart disease. That is what I would call 'many'. But the number of deaths from bird flu in the world – not in a year but ever – is rather less dramatic. It is precisely 359. And in Britain, the cumulative total is not 750,000 or even 50,000 – the number Donaldson predicted would die in a single outbreak – but a big fat zero. Why, then, does the World Health Organisation go on peddling a myth?
His record as a bird flu expert has done Sir Liam Donaldson no harm. He has collected, as well as the inevitable knighthood for services to health, no fewer than 13 honorary degrees from British universities, which suggests that our academic institutions are as impressed by his uncanny powers of soothsaying as the rest of us.
Meanwhile, we have to wonder what happened to the 40 million doses of Tamiflu. Are they still hanging around somewhere or have they been quietly flushed down the loo? And how much good would they have done anyway? A little-noticed report from the Commons public accounts committee in 2014 expressed concern that drug companies were withholding information from clinical trials of the drug and concluded that there was 'little agreement' about its effectiveness. Some independent researchers claim that it may work no better than aspirin and that it has worrying side effects.
Sir Liam is long retired. But there's something about the office of chief medical officer for England that seems to be inextricably linked to the spread of alarm and despondency in the population. His predecessor, Sir Donald Acheson, was the expert in charge of the Government's response to the so-called 'gay plague' in the late 1980s. He called AIDS 'the biggest threat to health in Britain since the Middle Ages' and proposed draconian measures to deal with it – including secret blood tests on hospital patients. Acheson seemed unconcerned about the ethical niceties of such a basic infringement of civil liberties.
For one reason or another – moderation of sexual behaviour may have been one of the reasons – the 'gay plague' never materialised in this country to the extent that Acheson predicted. By 2014, the cumulative total of known HIV-positive individuals ever registered in Scotland was 7,384, of whom 1,860 died: a long way short of the 18,000 who will die this year, and every year, from heart disease. No-one will ever know how many of those hearts were affected by the anxieties and depression caused by fear-mongering health experts.
In the distinguished line of chief medical officers for England, we now have Dame Sally Davies, who celebrated Christmas by informing obese women that they pose a threat to society 'as dangerous as the terror threat' and called for female obesity to be included on the UK Government's national risk register of civil emergencies. I have reassuring news for any readers who may fall into the category of a civil emergency: look at the records of Acheson and Donaldson and ponder whether Davies is likely to be any more right than they were.
Since the New Year she has been busy-bodying around alcohol units, recommending a halving of the weekly consumption of the adult male – to 14 units. Dr Christopher Clayson, who liberalised Scotland's licensing laws in the 1970s, regarded 28 units a week as 'moderate' and himself had a sherry and two glasses of claret every night. This would have qualified him in Dame Sally's book as borderline alcoholic, though he somehow staggered on until the relatively advanced age of 101.
I knew Clayson. He was a man who took a sunny view of the human race: a civilised and civilising influence. Lecturing and hectoring people was not his style. Since his day, though, the messages from on-high have become steadily more shrill and extreme; on issues of public health as on so many others, we are witnessing the politics of panic. And as we have just heard, going to press, that several cases of swine flu are being treated in Scotland, we are likely to hear much more from the panic merchants before the winter is over.