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UK politicians who urged us all to ‘follow the science’ now turn on the scientists for being WRONG. But will the people buy it?

Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis

is a writer, speaker and consultant on innovation and technology, was most recently a Director at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he set up and led their crowdsourced innovation service. Follow him on Twitter @Norm_Lewis

is a writer, speaker and consultant on innovation and technology, was most recently a Director at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he set up and led their crowdsourced innovation service. Follow him on Twitter @Norm_Lewis

UK politicians who urged us all to ‘follow the science’ now turn on the scientists for being WRONG. But will the people buy it?
Furious finger-pointing has broken out in the UK as experts and politicians try to distance themselves from the consequences of the government’s calamitous Covid-19 lockdown strategy.

It’s not often that one witnesses grown-ups playing pass the parcel in public. But this is what is happening in the UK: experts and politicians are rapidly passing the ‘blame parcel’ back and forth, driven by the mounting fear of ending up holding it when the music stops.

Sir Adrian Smith, a statistician and the incoming president of the Royal Society, this week demanded that the government should stop passing the buck and stop saying they “are simply doing what scientists tell us” over coronavirus. He insisted that they be more open about the advice they have received. His concern is that the scientists will be blamed for any shortfalls, especially when the devastating health and economic consequences of the lockdown become apparent.

Government ministers responded with an astonishing salvo: Thérèse Coffey, the secretary of state for work and pensions, played the ‘it’s the scientists wot made us do it’ get-out-of-jail card during a Sky News interview by boldly suggesting that: “If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong, I'm not surprised if people will then think we then made a wrong decision.”

This response demonstrates how right Sir Adrian is to raise concerns that trust in science could sour in the pandemic crisis. International science policy experts have raised this too.

Many governments have turned to scientists to try to get a measure of certainty in a crisis marked by enormous uncertainty. But, as Sir Adrian points out, politicians, not scientists, made the decisions that followed.

In the UK, the government has repeated ad nauseum the line that it has been “guided by the science” in its coronavirus response, and ministers have been conspicuously flanked at press conferences by senior scientific advisers.

But Sir Adrian’s criticism of the government for making decisions behind closed doors when it should have been more open and transparent is more questionable. An editorial in the Times supporting Sir Adrian agreed that Boris Johnson should stop being so defensive, admit mistakes like the care home scandal, and acknowledge there is much that, with hindsight, the government would do differently. He was urged “to show that he has learnt the clearest lesson so far of this crisis: the importance of transparency.” 

But is “transparency” the clearest lesson so far in the coronavirus crisis? The need to hold the government to account for its decisions during this crisis, is indeed, critical. Hiding behind scientists and using their authority as a substitute for exercising political judgement is a real political problem.

But the absence of transparency is not the problem. This might have shone a more public light on decision-making – perhaps it would have shown where and how “the science” had been applied or not. This might shield scientists to some extent. But transparency has very little to do with the need for genuine accountability. And the scientists are not squeaky clean either.

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The first point is that the government should be held to account for their actions and decisions, not the manner in which they have come to their conclusions.

In the context of a politicised health crisis, transparency would have made things worse. More openness would have short-circuited the difficult process of deliberation required to test out ideas that would involve many unpalatable options, especially given the uncertainty. When a professor of public health at Imperial College publicly blamed Boris Johnson for needless deaths and illnesses because he failed to act on their warnings, it became impossible for the government to have any honest open debate.

Every nuance or genuine difference of opinion – even if aired simply to clarify options – would have been seized upon as “evidence” of cabinet splits or as a weapon to beat the government with by a hostile media. Boris’ “defensiveness” is totally understandable.

But this does not therefore mean that political accountability should be jettisoned or that hiding behind experts can be justified. Far from it. What is needed is real accountability – for both politicians and experts.

The second problem with the emerging blame game is that both sides have egg on their faces.

The scientists have played a key role in influencing the worst-case thinking which informed government decisions. The rapid transformation of the UK government’s mitigation strategy to a draconian suppression one, almost overnight, was not simply a fearful political response to the images of bodies being transported by army trucks out of Bergamo. It was especially Professor Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College simulation study, written to simulate a flu epidemic 13 years previously, and its projected 500,000 UK deaths, almost as a certainty, that caused this shift.

Sir Adrian is right that politicians wanted science to produce certainty. But the certainty some scientists provided mistook worst-case scenario possibility for fact, for reality. The nuance was not there but the desire to “do something,” driven by the media, certainly was.

Now everyone has to deal with the consequences: and they’re all running for cover rather than engage in an adult conversation about what went wrong – on both sides of the blame game boxing ring.

This reminds me of a South African joke about ANC-government corruption. A TV newsreader announces bad news and good news: “The bad news,” she says, "is that the s**t is going to hit the fan. But the good news is, that because of power cuts, the fans will not be working.”

Whether the fans in the UK will be working in our post-Covid-19 depression remains unknown. But from what we’ve seen so far, what’s going to hit them is certainly not.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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