Big Brother is (still) watching you

Yesterday I got a phone call from someone from the NHS, relating to my not having received a third dose of COVID vaccine. One is not prepared for such calls, but I said that I had already explained to my GP, when the surgery staff enquired, that I did not wish to have it. (I confess I got two doses of AstraZeneca from my doctor’s surgery last spring, and have never had dealings with any other “vaccination centre”).

The lady on the phone said she knew that, but was doing research on the reasons for vaccine refusal.

Having no particular reason to hide it, I first answered the question about whether I had received reminders about the vaccine (I had a couple of times – but see below), and when she asked why I had declined the booster… where to start?

So rather than scrambling to fish out references to papers, I said it was because I had read the Pfizer trial report, and the follow up, and everything I could get hold of on the effectiveness, adverse reactions and real-time results in ONS data, and had decided that a risk-benefit calculation didn’t favour having it.

She replied to the effect “Fair Enough” and asked if it was the fear of side effects that had swayed me (which sounds like an attempt to compress two years of study into an anti-vaxx tick box), so I replied that, Yes, it was that plus the increasing signs of poor effectiveness, which had only been amply confirmed since Omicron took hold.

Now, a bit like agreeing to be interviewed for a TV programme on a controversial subject, one can be pretty certain that any NHS research done on such a casual telephone basis isn’t designed to gain real insight into either vaccines or patients. My replies will be spun into whatever nudge message the government might wish to put out next – which is evidently in a state of considerable flux at present.

Perhaps (though I fear it is only vanity that raises the possibility in my mind) the woman’s entree of “Is that Dr Jonathan Charles Garvey?” could mean that they are researching why present and past medically trained personnel, in particular, would refuse their treatments. More likely, they’re just hoping to nudge a few more absent-minded people into compliance.

But on putting the phone down, I realised that the real issue is this. In mid 2020, Matt Hancock announced in Parliament that NHS medical records were no longer to be strictly confidential, but would be made available to other government agencies and even commercial enterprises such as pharmaceutical companies (“to break the culture of secrecy”). So I took the necessary steps to exercise my right to refuse such “de-classifying” of my personal GP records. Not that there’s anything much of interest in them, unless some functionary should have miscoded “osteoarthritis” as “gonococcal arthritis” or something. But in the current climate of surveillance, it just seems canny to deny some Plod chasing hate non-crime the ability to trawl through my life.

Anyway, the process involved filling in forms both for the central NHS database that would upload my records after whatever the date was, and writing directly to my local GP including another form. The former never replied, which I suppose is par for the course in our infallible informatics age, but neither did my GP, though it is a lot more likely that a real person read my real letter and entered a real READ code into the system.

But yesterday’s phone call demonstrates incontrovertibly that all that time-consuming exercise of my legal rights was pure flannel. I had already remarked to my wife that the several phone calls from the central vaccine agency noting that I hadn’t had the booster proved that my GP had breached my confidentiality, and yesterday’s cold-call from the NHS asking my reasons, whether for genuine research reasons or not, further demonstrates that the rights I have in law are entirely irrelevant to the State under which I live.

In this relatively small matter (though it will no longer be small if the “conversation” Boris Johnson hinted at in November results in compulsory vaccination after the Austrian model) we can see that all government assurances on the security of our personal information are utterly worthless. We are bound by law, but the government isn’t. As Edward Snowden uncovered, the technology exists to collate all available data on us by AI – from our buying habits and our political views to every instance of our face ever recorded by CCTV cameras. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that it is not being employed on us right now, the information being instantly made available should we at any time become “persons of interest.”

Strangely enough, in the immediate context of my vaccine refusal, the information flow is only one way. As Peter Doshi tellingly pointed out in the BMJ just two days ago, it is impossible for anyone, including medical researchers as well as the common man, to get the raw data from the vaccine trials on which our very lives depend. My records are available to Big Pharma, but theirs are not to me – sufficient reason in itself to refuse their products, especially given their track record of malfeisance and outright fraud on a massive scale over the last two decades.

If I had had my wits about me yesterday, I would have raised the confidentiality issue at the end, I suppose in some form such as, “Now I’ve answered all your questions, I have one question for you. How do you know my personal medical information when I have refused permission for it to be used outside my local doctor’s surgery?”

But this being the information age, I can predict the answer I would have got: “Oh that’s nothing to do with me – I’m just following the instructions I have been given.”

Baa, baa.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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