Devi Sridhar: Separate JCVI could be better for Scotland

A separate Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) for Scotland could make better local decisions in future pandemics, Devi Sridhar has said.

Professor Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, has been a vocal advocate of Covid vaccines for children and wanted to see them advised earlier by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

But she believes the London-based committee, which advises all UK governments, “did not feel the same urgency”, as experts and leaders in Scotland, especially over summer 2021 when considering 12 to 15-year-olds, as school holidays finish later in England than Scotland.

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A Scottish version of the committee, or one in London with more Scottish experts on it, could make decisions better tailored to the local population, Prof Sridhar suggested.

Devi Sridhar, Professor and chair of Global Public Health at The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh 20th July 2020

Science is a reserved issue, and JCVI, the committee that decides on this, is based out of London. It's a UK-wide committee, and you can't really overrule it,” she said, adding that while devolved governments could have vaccinated children earlier, as they are not bound by JCVI advice, they “didn’t feel expert enough to go out on a limb”.

“I think what you would have had to have is a Scottish version of JCVI, which would have allowed them to advise ministers to vaccinate,” she said.

The same issue was faced in Wales and Northern Ireland, she added, because none of the devolved nations have local committees.

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Prof Sridhar was “frustrated” by the delay from JCVI to advise vaccination for 12 to 15-year-olds in the summer of 2021.

The vaccine was approved in that age group by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in June, but not advised by the JCVI until September despite Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Gregor Smith writing to the committee in July urging them to review this.

The JCVI said in August there was “more uncertainty” in the balance of the benefits and potential harms of vaccinating this age group, adding that it was considering the accumulation of data and changing epidemiology of Covid in the UK, and would give fresh advice in a “timely manner”.

“I was saying we don't have as much time, because our kids go back in August, and in England it’s September… England had a bit more time,” Prof Sridhar said.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (L) receives a COVID-19 booster vaccination in Glasgow on December 4, 2021. Photo by RUSSELL CHEYNE/POOL/AFP via Getty
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She added: “You need structures that understand the local context, whether it's the local hospitals, the local NHS, the local school systems, and those responsive to it.

“It could be a Scottish JCVI or it could be more Scottish experts on JCVI, so they understand.”

Scotland has a different NHS structure and school system, Prof Sridhar said, as well as differences in demographics.

She compared the issue to her previous work abroad: “You don't go into talking about South Africa without a South African in the room… if we're going to talk about Ghana I need to talk to a Ghanaian.

Felix Dima, 13, from Newcastle receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Excelsior Academy on September 22, 2021 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

“It’s the same thing, you need to have someone who understands what's happening in Scotland if you're going to be deciding on vaccination policy in Scotland.

“That could be embedding that in that structure or creating a complementary one.”

Prof Sridhar said she was not making a “nationalist point”, adding that during the pandemic she has found politics “very heightened” in Scotland.

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Originally from Miami, Prof Sridhar moved to Edinburgh around the 2014 independence referendum, and has found some people interpret her positive comments about the city, and Scotland as a whole, as pro-independence, while they are not intended as political.

Twitter especially can be “quite an angry platform”, she said, adding that she once deleted her account, but re-opened it 12 hours later after her email inbox and those of her colleagues were overwhelmed by messages from members of the public asking if something had happened to her.

While she has faced abuse - with police investigating threats from anti-maskers - she has not experienced much racism or zenophobia towards her American accent.

“In some ways it's been refreshing,” she said.

“Maybe we have progressed as a society that actually someone like me can exist in today's world and not face that in my daily life, even in these past few years, as a big issue.”

However, misogyny has been a different story.

“I have sometimes felt that there's a higher level of scrutiny on me compared to my male colleagues, who can get away with saying quite a lot of things and nobody calls them up on it,” she said.

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“And then you say something and all of a sudden you get the full spotlight over how could you have said that, or done that.

“We know the bar is higher for women. That's kind of a universal truth, and what do you do? Do you hide from it? That's why I think you see women not wanting to go out there because they don't want to have that scrutiny.

“That means you leave that space to just male commentators and male scientists. I've just kept going, because I keep thinking women should have the space just as much.

“You can't control what people say to you, but you can control your reaction to it. And I think I have got better, as we all do in workplaces, in reacting to it, either with humour or standing up for myself more.”

Devi Sridhar’s new book, Preventable: How a Pandemic Changed the World & How to Stop the Next One, will be released by Viking on April 21.

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