Just so you can understand what on earth is going on at the start of the audio….
Toby is my mum’s very adorable dog.
Naturally, since Invisible Women was apparently being handed out at the highest levels of government and since the evidence Helen MacNamara gave, from default male PPE to the UK government being more interested in safeguarding football and hunting than victims of domestic violence, naturally, I had some journalists calling me. And yes, her testimony did rather remind me of Part VI of Invisible Women:
When things go wrong – war, natural disaster, pandemic – all the usual data gaps we have seen everywhere from urban planning to medical care are magnified and multiplied. But it’s more insidious than the usual problem of simply forgetting to include women. Because if we are reticent to include women’s perspectives and address women’s needs when things are going well, there’s something about the context of disaster, of chaos, of social breakdown, that makes old prejudices seem more justified. And we’re always ready with an excuse. We need to focus on rebuilding the economy (as we’ve seen, this is based on a false premise). We need to focus on saving lives (as we will see this is also based on a false premise). But the truth is, these excuses won’t wash. The real reason we exclude women is because we see the rights of 50% of the population as a minority interest. (IW, pp.289-90)
You can see why MacNamara started handing out copies of my book. Shame it doesn’t seem like any of the recipients actually read it.
I am turning down most press at the moment, because I am trying to spend as much time as possible on my book projects (IW updates plus the new one), but when the Radio 4 Today programme came calling I felt it would be remiss of me to pass up the opportunity to shove my arguments down MPs’ throats, who I believe still religiously listen to the Today programme. Sadly, various technical snafus and communication misfires meant I ended up on the line listening to Justine Greening fail to nail my points, which was frustrating to say the least. Sill, Today’s loss was The Guardian readers’ gain as it meant that I said yes to dispensing my pearls of wisdom in their pages.
Having been blocked by politicians insisting there was no problem, I decided to get hold of some data to prove them wrong. Every time a healthcare worker uses a new model of mask, hospitals are meant to perform a “fit test” and record their results – so, in April 2020, I sent a freedom of information request to every NHS trust I could find. If I could show that women were failing their fit tests at a higher rate than men, surely the government would have to listen?
But here again I was met with, at best, a failure by trusts to collect disaggregated data by sex on fit-test outcomes; at worst, a strong implication that I was the one creating problems with my frivolous questions about worker safety (didn’t I know there was a pandemic on?). One of the trusts, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals, which originally replied to say it did not disaggregate data by sex, went on to retrospectively do its own analysis and found that female staff were almost twice as likely as male staff to fail the mask-fit test. They have since committed to always collect sex-disaggregated data on fit tests.
You can read my full piece here — but I have a note on it. A day after the article was published I was contacted by Simon Stevens, who is now in the House of Lords. He pointed me towards the testimony that he gave to the inquiry a day after Helen MacNamara gave hers, in which he disputed her evidence. In response to a question about PPE from Andrew O’Connor KC, Lord Stevens said:
So actually the Cabinet Office's own minutes of that meeting say, first of all, that the permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care responded on the availability of PPE, given that the Department of Health and Social Care has responsibility for securing PPE for the NHS, and then it goes on to say: "The chief executive for the National Health Service said there was ongoing work to investigate the suitability of PPE for all those using it, and testing to make sure it was suitable for women, for those who are black, Asian and from minority ethnic backgrounds, and those with different face shapes or facial hair." So I think the Cabinet Office's own records show that what is attributed to me second-hand is not actually what I said at the meeting.
Without interviewing MacNamara (which I do intend to try to do for the updated edition of Invisible Women) I have no way of knowing how she got the impression that Stevens had brushed it aside (although let’s be honest I can certainly imagine BJ hearing this response as “no problem” and proceeding to forget all about it…). Either way, it didn’t really matter what testing was or was not being done since, as we know, PPE for the female body simply didn’t exist — and it still doesn’t. Still, I wanted to flag this, since Nathan and I recorded this podcast episode before Lord Stevens contacted me, so it’s worth bearing this in mind when we’re talking about him specifically, although obviously what we say applies way beyond this one man who happened to be chief executive of the NHS at the time, and also we range much more broadly than the specific issue of his comments about PPE for women, including just what is behind the institutional reluctance to acknowledge problems ranging from default male PPE to default male cars, to my Mum’s issues with PPE working in the Ebola epidemic, to what exactly was the Simon Says game called???