Health scares, like children, have a nasty habit of turning bilious at
the most inopportune moments. And, as any parent knows, the cure - or
placebo - needs to be administered swiftly in order to avoid mounting
hysteria all round.
The public, urged on by the media, is often irrational about perceived
health risks. But it is a foolish government that invites greater alarm
by its handling of the situation. And it beggars belief that the same
pattern of mishandling could occur twice in as many months.
Certainly there was a touch of bank holiday over-excitement about last
weekend’s story on phthalates in baby milk. And no doubt the average
infant is more likely to be involved in a road accident with the
reincarnated Elvis Presley than suffer adverse effects from drinking the
stuff. Hence the official insouciance. But, as with BSE before it,
highhanded dismissiveness is not the treatment this condition demands.
A story which should have been dealt with swiftly, using all the
information at the Government’s disposal, was lightly brushed aside. And
again a minister has compounded the problem by making patronising
declarations about the public’s ability to understand the scientific
Now public confidence, rightly or wrongly, has been dented. Doctors are
said to have been bombarded with anxious calls. And, unlike ministers,
they cannot blithely recommend that the worried mother takes two pinches
of salt and calls them in the morning if the story hasn’t gone away.
At the very least, health workers should have been given the information
needed to advise anxious parents. Their fears may be irrational, but
they are genuine fears nonetheless, and they need genuine reassurance
and advice - not dismissive sneering from ministers.
Neither will this approach quell the alarmist tendency in the media,
who, having spotted the potential for another BSE saga, will milk the
story for all it is worth. And if the Government is hoping to protect
manufacturers, it needs a basic lesson in business management. 1. The
consumer is worried. 2. No concrete evidence or action is forthcoming.
3. The consumer decides not to buy the product. The scientific data,
which junior minister Tim Boswell cannot be bothered to release in full,
will be worthless if parents vote with their purses.
At the start of the BSE fiasco, and in the face of similar government
dithering, McDonald’s realised the only way to prevent a consumer
stampede for the exits was to impose its own British beef ban. The
government fiddled while beef burned. Now it seems hell bent on doing
the same while baby milk turns sour.