Bristol official who called Covid a ‘gift’ to students was ‘sympathising’, say council bosses

No comment from Christina Gray or Thangam Debbonaire MP

Backlash has been swift since Bristol Director of Public Health, Christina Gray, said that students should view the Covid pandemic as a “gift”, that it is not a “deficit”, but rather should be “delighted” to be “in the middle of an enormous natural experiment”.

She made the comments on a live stream with Bristol West MP, Thangam Debbonaire, discussing students and Covid. However, following publication of Saturday’s article about the comments, the video of the event was deleted from Debbonaire’s Facebook page.

We contacted Debbonaire regarding the video deletion and Gray’s remarks, and we were told: “Thangam cannot comment on this right now.”

We also attempted to reach Christina Gray, however we have been told that she is too busy to speak to us, and instead we were sent a statement from Deputy Mayor Asher Craig who said that the comments are “sympathising with students”.

Craig said the video “clearly shows Christina…recognising the challenges they face and thanking them for their continued efforts”, implying that Gray’s comments were taken out of context.

Students, academics, and local Bristol residents have responded universally badly to the comments and the deletion of the video, with many calling for Gray to make a public apology.

In a poll conducted by The Bristol Tab, only 4 per cent of respondents agree with Gray that Covid is a “gift”, with 96 per cent disagreeing with Gray. The poll had 278 responses at the time of publication, with only 10 of those agreeing with Gray.

Ope wrote: “Mice don’t like being experimented on, but it’s always great for the scientist”.

Carole Peters labelled the comments “ridiculous”, whilst Alex said: “She’s living in a different reality”.

Lucy Hurford said: “what an ignorant and stupidly misplaced comment”, while Flo commented: “are you having a giggle”.

Mental health was a concern for a couple of respondents. Joel Grimmer wrote: “unbelievably offensive given the impact covid has had on student mental health”, and Eve Moulton said: “very naive and condescending, especially in light of the students who are struggling like me”.

Professor Gary Foster, a Bristol University academic whose wife is an NHS doctor working with Covid patients, wrote: “we have students who have lost parents, this is NOT a ‘gift’, this is NOT a great time to be in an ‘enormous natural experiment'”.

Dr Pam Lock of Bristol Uni wrote that she found the video “hard to watch”, and Professor Colin Davis added: “Anyone with any interest in how universities are (not) acknowledging their role in spreading the epidemic should read [Gray’s comments]”.

Dr Heather Buss of Bristol Uni was so angry that she wrote to The Bristol Tab’s Instagram page, saying: “I am absolutely furious with Christina Gray! Our students are not lab rats! This Covid ‘experiment’ is not a ‘gift’, it’s a deadly disease! Her comments show shocking insensitivity and callousness not just to students but to the whole city. She should resign immediately.”

In a statement to The Bristol Tab, Deputy Mayor Asher Craig (Cabinet member for Public Health) said: “Bristol is fortunate to have Christina as our Director of Public Health as well as her team, who have all worked around the clock since early this year to prepare, deliver and monitor the city’s response to the pandemic alongside the Mayor.

“As we prepare for a second lockdown and brace ourselves for the further challenges of minimising the impact on the city’s health as much as possible, it’s disappointing to see a clip of a conversation being taken totally out of context in this way.

“The full video clearly shows Christina sympathising with students, recognising the challenges they face and thanking them for their continued efforts, with the short clip advising them, if possible, to use learnings from their studies to support Bristol’s response to COVID-19.

“I fully support Christina in her role and will continue to work with her to focus on supporting the city through what will undoubtedly be considerable challenges ahead through the winter.”

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