The Polish government’s COVID-19 advisers are resigning

The majority of the Polish Medical Advisory Board on COVID-19 has resigned, saying their advice was ignored. Ed Holt reports.

Three-quarters of Poland’s COVID-19 medical advisory body have resigned after claims the government is ignoring its pandemic advice and tolerating anti-vaccination sentiment.

In a letter to the government dated January 14, 2022, 13 of the 17 members of the COVID-19 Medical Council explained their reasons for leaving the body. They lamented the government’s lack of cooperation and warned of “…the growing tolerance for COVID-19 denial and the importance of vaccination in the fight against the pandemic…reflected in government and official statements.” The letter also criticized “the discrepancy between scientific and medical reasoning and practice” in the government’s handling of past and current waves of infections.

Poland has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates per capita in the world, with more than 100,000 deaths from the disease. The vaccination rate of 56% as of 18 January is below the EU average of 69%. In a study on Polish attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccination published by Warsaw Medical University last year, one in three aged 18 to 65 said they would never receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Reluctance is particularly strong in the country’s rural areas, where the ruling Law and Justice party enjoys strong support.

Measures are in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, but physicians, including those on the Advisory Panel, which consisted entirely of physicians and disease experts, have repeatedly pointed to their poor enforcement. Speak with The lancetthe resigning members of the medical council said that over several months the government had increasingly ignored their advice and some politicians had begun to speak out against them.

dr Robert Flisiak, president of the Polish Association of Epidemiologists and Infectious Disease Scientists, said cooperation between the Medical Council and the government had been excellent until mid-2021, when vaccination spread in Poland began to slow amid rising anti-vaccination sentiment. “The government appeared to be adopting a wait-and-see attitude, reluctant to introduce unpopular measures,” he said. He attributed this to politicians not wanting to lose the support of voters who were sympathetic to or actively involved in anti-vaccination movements.

The government recently refused to sack a regional education official and supporter of the Law and Justice party after she said the COVID-19 vaccination was an “experiment”, calling her comments only “unfortunate”.

Flisiak said the continued obstruction of legislation on pandemic measures by MPs (some from the Law and Justice party) coupled with the government’s rejection in November of proposals from the Medical Council, including legislation allowing for COVID-19 status of employees in companies and the introduction of a so-called COVID passport, “was pretty much the last straw”. “We resigned because we saw that we can no longer influence the decisions made,” he said.

After the resignations, the government issued a statement saying: “It is the government’s role to make decisions based on the various positions of experts – the Medical Council, economists, experts from other fields affected by the epidemic.”

Doctors unaffiliated with the Medical Council said the government’s response to the resignations was worrying. Krzysztof Filipiak, deputy rector of Warsaw Medical University, said the statement suggested “that [Poland’s] The right-wing government has accepted enormous mortality and does not want to change anything”.

The government is aiming to set up a new doctors’ council. “It will have a wide range of experts, including medical professionals, economists and sociologists. You will help and advise the Prime Minister. Currently, the Ministry of Health has a team of national advisers for different areas of medicine. They will continue to be the primary source of advice for the Secretary of Health,” a spokesman for the Department of Health said The lancet.

However, former members of the Medical Council have questioned whether their successors will be more successful in influencing policy. “The recommendations we made were very reasonable. I’m afraid if the next medical council advises the same things, the outcome [being ignored by the government] will be the same. If they recommend what the government wants to hear, the government won’t have any problems, but nothing will change,” said Professor Anna Piekarska from the Department of Infectious Diseases and Hepatology at the Lodz Medical University.

The resignations come as the Health Ministry has warned that Poland is entering a fifth wave of COVID-19 infections, predicting that the country will soon face its highest infection rate ever and that the health system could be under a huge strain.

There are concerns about how strong the wave will be. “At the moment we do not have a COVID passport and 44% of the population is not vaccinated. The next wave will be dramatic,” said Piekarska.

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