Boris Johnson leant too much on an unaccountable body
This week the Covid inquiry continued to hear evidence about the political incompetence of Boris Johnson’s government not “following the science” during the early days of the pandemic.
Long-standing accusations resurfaced about the Covid policy “rollercoaster” and the need for earlier and more stringent measures, according to Prof. Thomas Hale, leader of the Oxford Covid-19 government response tracker.
Yet this narrative obscures one of the main political failures of how the UK dealt with Covid: a lack of serious thinking about the predictable collateral damage from non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as lockdown.
While responsibility for this abysmal failure is multifaceted, a few specific challenges with the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) merit further attention during the second investigation of the UK inquiry, focused on political decision-making.
First, Sage suffered from a dominance of biomedical expertise, and hence disciplinary groupthink that promoted an incorrect vision of what a “pandemic” really is: a whole-of-society problem rather than just an epidemiological conundrum to be solved through the language and heroic slogans of medical science.
This was built into the Government’s main request to focus on the epidemiological impact of control measures. Biomedical sciences, led by physicians and modellers, brought their unique worldview to Sage because that was what the Government wanted. This muddied the waters about the high level of uncertainty for the real-world effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions and expert disagreements, which remained sidelined and neglected. According to testimony this week from Lord O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary from 2005-2011:
Secondly, Sage suffered from a fundamental existential ambiguity: were they in the business of objective scientific advice or decision-making? In one sense, it would appear that decision-making was partially outsourced from the Johnson government to Sage. This was certainly part of the public view, reinforced by the cultural power of scientific authority. With Patrick Vallance at its head, Sage functioned somewhere between a scientific advisory group and a branch of the executive.
But politicians have not escaped blame. This week, Anne Longfield, England’s former children’s commissioner, blamed Johnson and Rishi Sunak (not scientists) for “failing children over school closures”. She claimed that ministers were indifferent to the harms of lockdown on children, especially the 2.3 million children in vulnerable homes who were “essentially locked up in their homes in unsafe environments”.
In this way, the use of “follow the science” as a strategy to deflect accountability away from elected politicians appears to have backfired and harmed the public perception of the political class; of statesmen and stateswomen engaging in the difficult art of statecraft.
The willingness of politicians to empower Sage appears to be, at one level, a symptom of the inexperience and dysfunction of the Johnson government, which is now well appreciated by the British public. In effect, one outcome of this is a further descent into a technocratic state.
Thirdly, Sage also suffered from a number of institutional problems, such as a lack of autonomy, accountability and transparency. In a recent set of recommendations, Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Home Office from 2010 to 2017, proposed that formal protocols should be established for Sage in order to increase transparency about membership and scientific evidence. Silverman also proposed a simple but important idea:
Such a mechanism would help separate out, in the public imagination, the erroneous idea that elected politicians should follow the advice of unelected scientists without question.
In the end, efforts by the political class to use “the science” to deflect blame appear to have worked about as well as the plexiglass installed in the local grocery shop: useless, expensive and, ultimately, we all see through it.