One can’t help but feel sorry for Sir Liam Donaldson. Britain’s “top doctor”, in theory the living, breathing exemplar of the Department of Health’s desire to have more clinical leaders, has been royally hung out to dry.
First his report was extensively leaked - with both The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Mirror running “exclusives” about his proposal to set a minimum charge of 50p per unit of alcohol to cut binge drinking. Then it was roundly criticised, with a range of ministers - not just Alan Johnson, but also work and pensions secretary James Purnell and all the way up the prime minister himself - saying no way, Doc. Then, the next day, it was published, and Sir Liam got to talk to the press himself, tactfully restricting himself to saying he took “a different view as to whether heavy drinking is a minor and insignificant problem” than Gordon Brown.
The rest of his proposals barely got a mention, which must be pretty depressing if your job is to advise the government on how to improve the nation’s health. If it wasn’t for the clash of emphasis, Sir Liam could consider forming an alliance with the government’s advisers on drugs policy - whose recommendations also seem to be routinely rejected amid the barrage of media outrage.
Magnus Linklater, writing in The Times, was one of the few journalists to question the government’s rejection of the plans, arguing that the chief medical officer, who is “immersed in the figures”, knows what he’s talking about. “We cannot stand back and allow the market to dictate events, not least because the market is slewed in favour of those who disrupt society rather than those who hold it together,” he wrote.
It was left to the BBC’s Nick Robinson - seemingly a lone voice - to point out that tax on alcohol is to rise steeply anyway, suggesting that the government is happy to penalise what Gordon Brown described as the “sensible majority of moderate drinkers” to bridge the fiscal gap.
Sir Liam may yet have the last laugh: his recommendations to ban smoking in public places were also rejected by the government - and look what happened there.