Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature The BMJ Interview

“In the 1980s NHS there wasn’t today’s climate of fear around speaking out”—Allyson Pollock

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: (Published 07 January 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:m4930 photograph of Allyson Pollock
  1. Elisabeth Mahase, clinical reporter
  1. The BMJ
  1. emahase{at}

Being a public health doctor means questioning government policy, the Newcastle professor tells Elisabeth Mahase, as she wins a BMJ award for “speaking truth to power”

Allyson Pollock, professor of public health and co-director of Newcastle University Centre of Research Excellence in Regulatory Science, is the 2020 winner of The BMJ editors’ award for “speaking truth to power.” Pollock, who is known for her work against the privatisation of the NHS, has been an influential voice during the covid-19 pandemic, questioning the evidence behind many of the government’s policies, including rolling out mass asymptomatic testing and stopping contact tracing early on.

You are known for asking tough questions and not being afraid to put your head above the parapet. Do you think that’s an important part of being a public health leader?

“I think it’s a really important role as a public health doctor; you are there to safeguard the health of the population. Our primary duty is to the public and the population to reduce the inequities in health and talk about the issues that result in ill health, and that does mean questioning, and often questioning government policies.”

That must cause upset sometimes, especially when you ask difficult questions of your colleagues

“It’s never meant to be personal when you ask about the evidence and the science behind it; it’s about always asking questions and being willing to accept that there are uncertainties. And the more we discuss those uncertainties, and also differences of opinion and view, the better understanding that we have of each other, and I think that sometimes is missing from the scientific discourse. We need to arrive at an understanding of each other’s positions, even if we don’t agree with it, to make progress.”

Where do you get the confidence to do that?

“I don’t think about it as being an issue of confidence. I was very lucky to have qualified in the 1980s, when certainly the politics of the time was still very progressive and there was a great belief in public services and the public ethos and public health. A lot of space was given …

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