If celebrities don't promote public health measures, they should get off air

I was shocked and sorry to hear Carol McGiffin saying on ITV’s Loose Women that she would not take a Covid-19 test before visiting friends and family this Christmas.

She was seemingly angry that the plans she made with friends this Christmas were getting cancelled because people are ‘scared’. She went on to say that ‘soft’ people are bailing on restaurant bookings.

But she clearly fails to understand that people can have Covid and give it to others, even if they don’t feel ill.

Throughout it all, the TV personality seemed to refer to Covid as though it is just another run-of-the-mill illness, rather than a pandemic that has killed 170,000 people in the UK in the last two years. And she seems to have forgotten – if she ever knew – that Covid deaths soared after Christmas last year.

But Carol McGiffin is by no means the first TV personality to refuse to acknowledge that basic public health measures are important in protecting people during a pandemic.

It’s why – as a doctor – I believe that celebrities have a responsibility to encourage people to adhere to common sense public health measures. If they don’t want to, they shouldn’t be on air at all.

In my experience, I have met mothers attending hospital with their children who were reluctant to put on a mask to protect health care workers. I’ve also heard of others who went to GP surgeries and argued about wearing a mask.

Is it any surprise when they hear people like Denise Welch on Loose Women last month claiming that masks are ‘as much use’ as ‘a chocolate fireguard’ without being challenged over her credentials for making such a claim?

Masks work. Evidence shows that they protect not only those wearing them but also people nearby. Wearing a mask when on public transport, and when indoors with others is not only a sensible personal precaution but a courtesy to those around you.

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With just a little effort, we can protect ourselves and those we love. And let’s not forget that frontline workers have to wear them all day every day.

Measures like mask-wearing and regular testing are especially important now that London’s mayor Sadiq Khan has declared a major incident.

The capital is the UK’s Omicron hotspot, with ‘extraordinary numbers’ of Covid cases, according to Professor Kevin Fenton, London director of public health. The number of Covid patients in London hospitals is up by 40% since the end of November, and every bed occupied by a Covid patient is one that is not available to an acutely ill non Covid patient.

Running the risk of getting Covid and a possible hospital admission means there may not be beds for those with a stroke, or a heart attack.

The Omicron surge in London puts the NHS under even greater pressure – for example, Charing Cross hospital has issued two black alerts (indicating significant capacity problems) in the last two weeks. At the same time, increasing numbers of NHS staff are having to self-isolate, meaning heavier workloads, stress and burn out for those who remain.

Many will not see families and loved ones for a second Christmas, but this time they know that the majority of those in hospital would not have been there if vaccinated. That is frustrating knowledge for exhausted frontline workers.

After nearly two years of the pandemic with no end in sight, the country needs real leadership, not stories of Downing Street parties during lockdown and TV celebrities peddling fake news.

We know that the public are prepared to follow public health advice but are likely to stop if they see blatant rule breaking by those in charge of the country, and many are influenced by the opinions of trusted TV personalities. 

This seems to be more common in the US, where observing public health measures has unfortunately become politicised – for example, Republican-leaning states with no mask-wearing policies tend to have higher Covid rates.

Some TV presenters in the US – like Tucker Carlson – know they can increase their audiences by ridiculing masks and vaccines, and of course if they increase their audiences, they boost their income.

But when it comes to people like Carol McGiffin closer to home, having a test before mixing with friends and family is a sensible precaution and shows consideration for loved ones. We can pass Covid on while not knowing we have it and people who have been vaccinated, especially the elderly, can get it again.

At the moment, those who spread fake news are simply getting away with it.

I’d like to take Carol McGiffin, Denise Welch and others talking dangerous nonsense on TV and show them inside an ITU. Doctors and nurses in full PPE for hours on end, anxiously watching over patients – some of them young and previously fit – attached to tubes and lines, struggling to breathe, perhaps not going to make it through.

They might think twice before putting the lives of patients and staff at risk. 

Over 170,000 UK civilians have died during the pandemic, compared with 70,000 during World War II.

At such a time of crisis, we need everyone to behave responsibly. Those in the media who refuse to do so should appear with a public health warning attached.

Better still, they should not appear at all.

The public and frontline workers will pull together to end this pandemic but there is no room for dangerous opinions that inevitably result in avoidable deaths.

Jacky Davis is a consultant radiologist, author and a member of Keep Our NHS Public. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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