Email to N.I. CMO – Dr Michael McBride

Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Advisor, Dr Michael McBride, has continuously advised the Executive to restrict, and at times close, health facilities. His claim is that closing them ‘may’ reduce the spread of COVID-19. I sent him an email outlaying my concerns on his theory and requesting the data said theory is built upon.


The Chief Medical Advisor, Dr Michael McBride, has been vocal at times on the need to prevent people from exercising in enclosed areas. He has requested the Executive to prohibit indoor sports and fitness classes based upon a theory that by doing so could cause a “Potential reduction in Rt of up to 0.1“. As an evidence-based researcher I found that comment shocking for many reasons, that I lay out in the email below. If it had a “potential” to reduce Rt “up to 0.1” then surely their modelling also offered up the negative. So if 0.1 was the maximum potential, what was the minimum and why wasn’t that mentioned? And what was the evidence he was basing the modelling on…etc?

Having friends that manage gyms, they had shared with me their alarm at Dr McBride’s claims and his directions to the Executive. None were aware of outbreaks, or alleged claims of spreading, in gym facilities. They would ask around for me and report back their findings. One notification in 9 gyms I was told. This can’t be right, I thought, so using the FOI I sent requests to all 11 council facilities asking them for the recorded numbers of reported infections in their leisure centres and gym facilities. 10 out of 11 councils have responded with one outstanding (at the time of my email to Dr McBride there was only 9 reporting).

To say I was alarmed by their responses would be a huge understatement. What their data showed was that any spread or “sizeable outbreaks” certainly weren’t happening in their facilities either. This aroused my curiosity even more. I emailed Dr McBride, and after 7 days having heard nothing back, I then resent the email with a note stating that failure to respond within 7 days would result in me initiating a FOI without any further notice. That got a response within hours. The reason for the non-response?

“Apologies for not acknowledging your previous email, it was received into an email address which is no longer active due to changes in our mail systems.”

That’s an even bigger mystery as I sent both emails to the same email address.

However, his office said that they would address the concerns in my email and I must accept they will do just that. It’s important they answer the questions posed and it’s indicative of the current times when the evidence that these experts say they have has to be chased down.

Once again we see a total lack of desire from the corporate media to address such matters. During Covid times they’ve morphed into stenographers for the DoH.

This has created a vacuum wherein the concerns of a very large section of the community aren’t being addressed with the disconnect between media and the people widening all the time. We have tried our best to fill as much of that vacuum as possible and to do the job the corporate media won’t and get you the answers to your questions that you seek.

The Email

4th December 2020

Dear Doctor McBride,

I am writing to you regarding the closure, again, of leisure facilities and gyms. This comes after forcing them to operate on a restricted basis since the16th October.

I also note your reported comments on the BBC where they quote you as saying, [gyms were closing for two weeks because data had shown “some sizeable outbreaks associated with gyms” despite protective measures being in place.]

Given the lack of transparency on the evidence of why gyms are being continuously restricted, with classes cancelled, and the huge knock-on mental and physical effects of removing these services, I thought I would reach out to each council area to ask for the numbers of reported “incidences” in their facilities. By incidences, I am referring to the numbers of people who attended council leisure facilities and whom the council were subsequently made aware the person/s had received a positive PCR test result.

I sent FOI requests to each of the council areas with the following questions:

“Could you tell me if any of the leisures centres/facilities in the Borough has had any recorded incidences of COVID-19 or been contacted by ‘Track and Trace’ in relation to potential infections in the centre/s?”

To date I have received responses from 9 of the 11 with only “Mid Ulster District Council” and “Newry, Mourne and Down District Council” outstanding.

The data I’ve received from the 9 councils is unremarkable and certainly doesn’t warrant restrictions for 5 weeks, followed by hard closures for a further 2 weeks, and no apparent reopening date on the horizon for health/fitness classes and indoor sports. One must bear in mind the cost to benefit ratio. There is a big cost to restricting people’s access to health and well-being services and if that cost doesn’t outweigh the benefits then something has gone terribly wrong with the guidance.

(Please see attached FOI summaries).

By my math, there would be 23 reported PCR positives within the 9 council areas. Upon follow-up communications, councils stressed they could not be certain that transmissions occurred in their facilities but rather only that these persons, with the positive test results, had attended their premises at one time.

Qualifying why I believe 23 PCR positives are “unremarkable” is in the context of the actions you’ve advised as a response. We know that the vast majority of those who receive a PCR positive result don’t require medical intervention, indeed up to the 1st December, Northern Ireland had 53,272 PCR +ves of which 8%, or 4,212, resulted in hospitalisations. If we apply that ratio to the 23 positive cases that attended council leisure facilities, that would be 2 people requiring medical intervention and that is also assuming the transmissions occurred in these facilities, of which there is no evidence that is the case.

However, what about the hundreds of thousands of people (60K per month in Belfast alone) who would be using these services for their wellbeing? Are you measuring their suffering for having their ability to exercise in leisure centres/gyms removed? Older people with chronic arthritis who use exercise to help with severe joint pain for instance? Or those suffering from mental health issues that need to exercise to save themselves from the awful side-effects of their illness, one such side-effect is unfortunately suicide. Are these impacts being measured? The point here is that people do still suffer, in much greater numbers, from other illnesses. I digress slightly; There were 185 excess deaths in September yet there were 19 deaths of people with a +ve PCR within 28 days of passing. In October there were 204 excess deaths – 137 of which had a PCR +ve result within 28 days of dying. Not counting all other deaths, but if we say COVID-19 registered deaths are part of the excess deaths category then for Sept & Oct there were 389 excess deaths of which 156 were COVID deaths (as per DoH). There are still 233 excess deaths not with or from COVID19. Are these mortalities as a result of such restrictions I am writing to you about? Are these excess deaths of people with serious illnesses that had their surgeries cancelled due to COVID19? I’m currently looking into the data on this but suffice to say, whilst COVID19 has had serious consequences for some, let’s not forget about the vast majority of other people that are suffering too, a large proportion of those will be suffering as a result of COVID19 restrictions.

I continue..

I must assume, with your position, you would be privy to much more detailed and concise data than I. Whilst at the same time I must also expect those returning councils to have supplied me correct and honest data under the FOI Act. It is also possible that the unreported councils may have had outbreaks of which I am not aware of as yet.

Could you share with me the exact data you were referring to on the BBC when you said there’d been “some sizeable outbreaks associated with gyms”?

Which gyms have been affected and what are the numbers you are you referring to when you claim “sizeable outbreaks”?

I am sure you will understand my concerns Dr McBride, especially when the numbers reported thus far from council leisure facilities arguably don’t warrant restricted services and certainly not full closures. It is important to ensure that the cure isn’t worse than the disease. Leisure facilities offer immeasurable benefits, both mentally and physically, for hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland and these health benefits cannot be overstated. Indeed the Executive acknowledges the risks posed by closing such facilities in their “ Non-Pharmaceutical Options” paper;

“Risk of increasing mental health problems with closure of gyms.”

The paper also notes;

“Potential reduction in Rt of up to 0.1, though precise estimation very difficult. Some evidence from outbreak data e.g. in Korea associated with fitness class.”

I’m presuming the evidence in Korea the Executive is referring to is this research letter? Forgive me if I have gotten this wrong, but as I couldn’t locate a source for the data on the DoH website I attempted to try and source it myself, hopefully I’ve located the correct evidence.

Briefly; noting the high viral load the 8 instructors were previously exposed to over an intense 4 hour training session and without knowing the exact size of each room and how many were infected in those rooms, and if social distancing measures were in place, or what the ventilation was like, this letter presents more questions than it answers.

“Characteristics that might have led to transmission from the instructors in Cheonan include large class sizes, small spaces, and intensity of the workouts.” (emphasis added)

We know the gyms in NI have gone to extreme measures to ensure social distancing guidelines are adhered to, with hand sanitising stations in situ and masks to be worn upon entering and leaving the facilities. They also intensely clean all machines and equipment after each use/session. Can you say the same for Korean classes? What I find confusing is that even if you take the letter as evidence of transmissions during high-intensity workouts then why have low-intensity workouts also been prohibited such as Pilates and Yoga?

Referencing the letter again:

We hypothesize that the lower intensity of Pilates and yoga did not cause the same transmission effects as those of the more intense fitness dance classes.” (emphasis added)

So at a time when people need to be keeping healthy, mentally and physically, and boosting their immune systems to help fight against seasonal viruses, including Coronaviruses, it seems highly illogical to close leisure facilities whilst keeping off-licences opened as an “essential service”. There’s something quite unsettling about that methodology.

In closing, if I may speak honestly and respectfully? Based upon the data I have gleaned from the 9 council areas and the Executive’s paper referencing “Some evidence…in Korea” and having personally spoken with several owners of quite large private gyms, it appears the prohibiting of gym classes and indoor sports is more based upon a fear they may spread the virus rather than on tangible evidence they actually do or have done, evidence is especially lacking in facilities that have appropriate COVID-Safe measures in place, such as NI gyms.

I’ve also been communicating regularly with gym owners and management at several council leisure facilities, on and off the record, to make sure the data I have is accurate with no notable changes prior to sending this email. It is from this informed position that I feel confident in approaching you seeking clarification on raised questions and voids in the evidence.

Summary of questions:

  1. Could you share with me the exact data you were referring to on the BBC when you said there’d been “some sizeable outbreaks associated with gyms”?
  2. Which gyms have been affected and what are the numbers you are you referring to when you claim “sizeable outbreaks”?
  3. How was the calculation made on the “potential reduction in Rt of up to 0.1” and when the calculation was made what was the lowest limit reached if the upper limit was 0.1%?
  4. The Korean evidence the Executive is referring to, is it the same evidence as I referenced in this email?
  5. What is the totality of the evidence the Executive have been presented with as to why gyms needed to be closed for 2 weeks and why indoors sports and classes have been banned?

Thank you for time and patience and I look forward to receiving your response in due course.

Kind Regards