“We were just following the science”

posted in: Politics | 0

I say this with no pleasure but it’s hard to see a single Covid related policy decision the UK government got right. Yes we will have to wait until there is full inquiry, until the full cycle of the pandemic has passed but it seems highly unlikely the UK will be judged to have done a good job. “Just following the science” sounds like a Nuremberg defense and I doubt it will be any more effective now than it was then.  

The mistakes at the outset, February/March, are easier to understand and forgive. With the exception of some Asian countries who had their experience of the SARS/MERS epidemics to fall back on, most of the world was caught flat footed by Covid 19. It was seen as closer to flu than SARS and by the time this mistake was realized, rammed home by the pictures  coming from Italy of bodies piling up at overrun hospitals, it was all too little, too late – on PPE, protecting the vulnerable, testing.

Social distancing began in a lot of places earlier than the official lock down in late March. Some individuals and organizations had already started to take sensible protective measures and the latest research from Bristol University suggests that it’s this, rather than the  draconian house arrest that followed, that accounts for the peak in deaths being passed in early April. It seems very likely that lock-down will prove to have come too late and that it was largely ineffective and pointless. Sensible hygiene and physical distancing were all that were needed but hindsight and all that, no blame in being overly cautious if you admit to having been overly complacent.

However, the mistakes that followed in the run up to “peak confusion” are less easy to forgive:-

  • Don’t wear masks – wear masks
  • No visitor quarantine – 2 weeks quarantine
  • 2 metres – 1 metre
  • Shield the care homes – send them untested Covid patients
  • Follow the rules – use your common sense
  • Stay home – go back to work

Today, almost mid-June, the plan to reopen schools is in tatters. A lack of co-operation on the part of some involved might be a cause of this but that lack of cooperation comes from a lack of confidence in a government that seems anything but sure footed. It may also be a resumption of politics as usual but that’s not surprising if the government is in disarray.

Yet another minister is trotted out for the media to defend not just the actions in his or her bailiwick but for the whole of cabinet; the face changes but the answer to any criticism remains the same, “At every stage we have followed the scientific advice”. Every minister seems to be the ‘Minister for Defense’ and the defense is always the same. Unfortunately it has more holes in it than swiss cheese.

It is blindingly clear that scientists do not all agree – so the question is which science did you follow and how did you choose? Clearly they followed the wrong science and /or the scientists that got it wrong, one of whom was Neil Ferguson who to his credit has now admitted his model was flawed, his estimates too high and that lock-down came too late, a decision he thinks accounts for 50% of the deaths.

In the absence of hard empirical data the science is just expert advice – and as Margaret Thatcher said, advisors advise, ministers decide. It is an abject dereliction of duty to just follow expert advice. All such advice is based on risk assessment and a scientist will not make a fully informed risk assessment otherwise we’d all be driving at 30 mph maximum, eating no sugar or salt and drinking virtually no alcohol. Maybe we should or maybe we want some freedom to choose, the liberty to do our own risk assessment.

Einstein pointed out that imagination is more important than scientific knowledge. The expert advice needed to be taken in the context of an imaginative vision for what success would look like. No such vision is apparent unless it was to ‘flatten the sombrero’ and make sure no blame could be attached to the government. We will regret that it was not braver, accepting that there would be deaths but balancing that with what is in the best interests of the majority and the preservation of our way of life as we normally do in a war. (Note; it was Boris and the government who used the war rhetoric so they have to accept the criteria).

I heard a scientist on the radio today (cannot recall his name but he advises SAGE) saying he had only two expectations – that his advice was heard and that it was understood. He had no expectations that it had to be followed since he fully accepted other advice and other factors needed to be taken into account in making policy decisions. Well said.

So not even the scientists think “we followed the science” is an acceptable defense.

That said, Scientists are better than politicians in a crisis. They will say what they think and do not regard peer review or admitting mistakes as a sign of weakness, quite the opposite. They see it as good science. Politicians deflect and obfuscate because, in the face of a hostile media, admitting mistakes and U-turns are political suicide. But is that true in a crisis? I’d like to have seen more business people involved – they know how to make decisions on imperfect information, how to make trade-offs and manage risk. They know how to work with experts with respect yet not afraid to challenge their assumptions and therefore their conclusions. Business people can take and then ignore advice in the pursuit of agreed goals. Meritocracy and performance (mostly) got them to their position, not votes. If they make a bad mistake or too many mistakes they stand down or get fired – they don’t get to hide behind advisors because they choose their advisors and what advice to take.

I think the UK government should not wait for an inquiry. They should admit they have made mistakes and take full responsibility, only that will restore some confidence. They behave as if the opposite is true, admitting mistakes will undermine not just confidence but adherence to their advice and plans going forward. Is that them just behaving like self-serving politicians normally do? Perhaps but I have another theory.

I believe they’re following the advice of behavioural scientists as they have explicitly said they’ve been doing throughout. SAGE includes behavioural scientists and it seems like they have a loud voice.

I have nothing to back up what I am about to say – yet – but I think the advice of behavioural scientists will be shown to be every bit as wrong and damaging as the advice of the Ferguson and the Imperial Team. Ferguson has now publicly said that the lock-down came one week too late and insodoing cost 50% of the deaths (let’s just say a lot, we know Neil and his numbers). Why were the government so reluctant to close the borders, ban any mass gatherings and confine as many as possible to staying at home? Because the behavioural scientists told them that it would be hard to impose a lock down and people would only put up with it for a few weeks. Go too soon and you risked people breaking lock down precisely when it was most needed.

Plum wrong. It proved relatively easy to impose the lock down and is now proving enormously hard to lift it and get back to some kind of normality.   A U-Gov survey showing that the majority of people felt no worse off under lock down and nearly a quarter felt better off might explain this. Add in the effect of the fear mantra – “Stay home, Save Live” – and it’s not just the benefit of hindsight. This could and should have been forseen.

This mistake will most likely be the cause of the biggest economic depression since 1928, possibly ever, with the UK set to be the hardest hit because we are so slow to relax the restrictions that make normal economic activity (and education) near impossible. And economic depressions cause illness and death – fact.

Is it fair to be so hard on the behavioural scientists? Time will tell. But in any event the blame will lie with the government not their scientific advisors.

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