Professor Susan Michie, a behavioural psychologist who sits on the all-important Sage committee, made headlines last week by appearing to suggest that social distancing and wearing facemasks should remain in place “forever”.
The Professor of Health Psychology has been an outspoken advocate of strict lockdown measures, both serving on Sage’s Scientific Pandemic Insights group on Behaviour (SPI-B) and advising the World Health Organisation on Covid-19.
She spoke to UnHerd about whether lockdown will ever be lifted, why people are no longer obeying the restrictions, and she addresses criticism of her Communist politics.
Will we need facemasks forever?
“I actually used four words [in that interview with Channel 5], and only one of them was reported. The full words I used were “forever to some extent”. What I mean by this is that, sadly, this isn’t going to be the last pandemic. For as long as humans are around viruses are going to be around.
And so I think the issue is: what have we learned?
What I’m talking about is really population-wide cultural shifts in certain behaviours, and certain lifestyles.
I went on a work visit to Japan several years ago, and I was amazed at the fact that they were so frequently wearing masks… From their point of view, they just regard it as good manners… Now, I’m not saying that we should all adopt that. But I think it’s a good idea to keep these behaviours that we can turn on or off as needed.
I hope we don’t have to wear face masks. But I think that if we are in a situation, like we are at the moment — when we’re actually we’re on a bit of a knife edge — we could go either way. Hopefully the vaccination roll-out will be good and quick enough to not allow the Delta variant to get away. Or it won’t — and in this sort of situation where there’s a threat, I think for people to wear masks in enclosed indoor spaces, when we know it’s transmitted by aerosol, is really sensible.”
This might not be the last delay:
“I don’t think there’s really any alternative other than delaying for four weeks and seeing what’s happening. It’s a very tricky situation… I think [Boris] is right — I think the question is: is it going to be sufficient?
The Prime Minister very wisely said several weeks ago that we need to look at data, not dates. And I think he’s absolutely right. And I think he and the Government and everybody should really heed that advice. There are too many uncertainties in which way this kind of race between the vaccine and the variant may go. So I think four weeks, then review it and see where we are.”
Britain’s poor pandemic response:
“I don’t think anybody would hold the UK up as a great example of pandemic response in this pandemic. I think it’s actually been one of the least good… It is very frustrating for everybody to know that, had we done things differently, we could have been in a very different place.”
People are no longer isolating:
“We have a situation still, after all this time, where tests take too long, where there aren’t traces on the ground, as there are in other, even relatively poorer countries. And people aren’t isolating. Our own research data shows that only about half people, even when they have symptoms of Covid, don’t isolate at home for a whole variety of reasons. But this is a failed system. And if we want to be serious about controlling the pandemic, we need to sort that out.”
On reports that she’s a member of the Communist Party of Britain:
“My politics are not anything to do with my scientific advice. And I’ve never discussed my politics with people like yourself, so nor am I going to now. And the important thing is that when one gives scientific advice, one does so using the expertise one has — not going beyond the expertise, being transparent about what expertise you provide. And I think that the kind of articles you refer to are a really disturbing kind of McCarthyite witch hunting, which I don’t think should have any place in a liberal tolerant society.”
How the pandemic will affect climate change:
“What I do hope is that this brings countries together more and there’s a more global way of looking at travel. Because actually, there’s an existential crisis around the corner, which is much greater than pandemics. And that’s the climate crisis. And air travel is one of the big contributors to global warming, and the kind of problems we’ve already been seeing.”
We should have closed the borders:
“I think if we’d had better border controls, we wouldn’t have the Delta variant doing what it’s doing at the moment. We were far too late to really restrict travel.”
The travel traffic light system doesn’t work:
“One of the problems about [it] is that people often come through third countries. And so they might have come from a green, but gone through amber or red. And the other issue is: it’s not just about the country people have come from. If they’ve been in a large tourist resort, they’ll be mixing with people from lots of other countries.”
On whether Sage is political:
“We don’t even advise on policy. We are posed questions, and then we provide the scientific evidence and thinking in answer to those questions. It’s up to the policy makers and politicians what they decide.”
More should be done now:
“There’s a lot more we could be doing that would reduce transmission right now, and it’s not being done. And that’s frustrating.
Ensuring secondary schools have good ventilation… ensure that secondary schoolchildren wear masks within schools, and ensuring there are very small bubbles within schools.”
The ideology of Public Health:
“If you look at the publications coming out from the behavioural group of Sage, many of them talk about the problems of inequality in our society and… the fact that the pandemic itself and the response have increased those inequalities.
We never talk about each other’s politics; I assume there’s a very broad range. But everybody’s unanimous about wanting a more equal society. And in order to get a fairer and more just society, it does require [that] the government has… policies that reduce rather than increase inequalities.”
I think there is an ideological difference with Public Health science taking a more population-wide view of things… that is a different kind of emphasis to… the media you mentioned who would have much more emphasis on individual freedom, individual rights, rather than taking a more collective population approach.
This pandemic has shown everybody that no individual is an island — we’re very interconnected. No one community, no one socioeconomic group within society can think they can solve it for themselves and protect themselves.”