by UnHerd
Tuesday, 2
February 2021
Video
17:06

Miriam Cates MP: we’re obsessed with what we can measure

The Red Wall MP discusses her concerns over school closures
by UnHerd

With a degree in genetics from Cambridge and as a former science teacher, new Tory MP Miriam Cates is better-placed than most to understand the science behind the pandemic. Earlier this month, the MP for Penistone & Stocksbridge signed a letter expressing concerns about the length of time schools have been kept shut, arguing that they would cause long-term harm to students. In this week’s wide-ranging LockdownTV interview, she elaborates on these concerns:

If we close schools now, we may reduce community transmission, we may reduce the number of people who end up in hospital and die. Now, that’s a good thing to stop that happening. But we know that will cause longterm harm to our children. Where’s the balance in that? There’s no scientific answer to that, that’s a moral answer. I think those are the kinds of questions that we need to be asking, going forward.

And again, in school life, we’ve become obsessed with measuring outcomes in terms of GCSE and A level results. But actually, schools provide way more than that. They prepare our children to build, grow and maintain relationships for the rest of their lives, to be resilient, all those things that you can’t get a job without those skills. You can’t have a successful family life without the skills. And that’s what we should be looking at in terms of how do we rebuild our children’s lives. Not just how do we make sure they pass GCSE maths? But how do we restore their confidence?

- Miriam Cates, LockdownTV

One common phrase throughout the pandemic has been “we are following the science”. But has this dogged pursuit of “science” created a reductionist governmental approach?

Epidemiology is not the only science. Behavioural science, psychology, all those things are mixed in to our understanding of how to tackle Covid. The Prime Minister said, way back last March, that lockdown is a limited measure because people will become frustrated with it. And that will have its own impact. And that’s behavioural science, which is just as important in understanding how we deal with this crisis as epidemiology. And the media, unfortunately, never put the science in context. So they talk about, for example, the number of deaths, but not the number of excess deaths. Or they talk about how many people are making car journeys, but not how many people normally make car journeys. And in science, you never take data out of context. And yet, that’s what’s being done.
- Miriam Cates, LockdownTV

Another important consideration is whether this focus on scientific reasoning has come at the cost of morality:

Over recent years we’ve almost stopped talking about morality in public life. And actually this crisis has exposed that we are very much still a deeply moral nation because the concept of all of us sacrificing to save the lives of others is actually a very moral concept. Where I think the difficulty has arisen is that we have as a society, and this isn’t a political point, but a cultural point, we’ve become very, almost obsessed with what we can measure. So we can measure the length of people’s lives, we can measure the number of people that die. Can we measure people’s sense of fulfilment? No, that’s much more difficult, but is it important? Yes, it is. Why do we live? It’s not just to avoid death. We live for all sorts of reasons.
- Miriam Cates, LockdownTV

Our education system is not the only institution which has come under strain in the past year. The church has historically been known to play a significant role in times of crisis — yet has come under fire for being almost entirely absent during this pandemic:

I think amazing work is being done on the ground. But I’m saddened by the kind of national institutionalised church response which has more often being to criticise government policy than to make the case for a spiritual awakening. And as a committed Christian myself, I find that sad and I think we’ve still got to discover how this will impact religion going forward because I would want to see people start to ask those deep questions again, but I don’t think we’ve got to that point yet. It’s important to say that since the end of the first lockdown, they have been open and haven’t had to close again, this time. Church is not normal, wearing masks, no singing, that kind of thing, but I don’t know, was it a mistake?  Had we not had Zoom and those other ways of connecting, then perhaps it would have been, but it was a moment of crisis and I can see why that decision was taken. But I am pleased that they haven’t been shut again. And I think that’s how it should stay.
- Miriam Cates, LockdownTV

Should the UK follow a ZeroCovid approach?

I think it’s dangerous to pursue a Zero Covid strategy. Because as dangerous as Covid is, and as much havoc is wreaked on our lives and economy, it is a virus like many other viruses and we do live with infectious diseases. The government can’t prevent all death. And I think in normal times most people accept that. But there are dangers from variants that could not be suppressed by the vaccine. So I think that’s the biggest worry at the moment, we get to a point where we’ve got it under control in the UK, and then a new variant comes across the border that requires an entirely new vaccination programme and an entirely new lockdown. That would be a disaster.
- Miriam Cates, LockdownTV

Many thanks to Miriam for taking the time to speak with us.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
28 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ben Scott
Ben Scott
1 year ago

I’m not sure I quite get this whole “new variant” thing. It seems to me that Governments have spent the last 11 months making policies based on what might be. These cries of new variant this, new variant that seem to be a way of maintaining the justification of basing policies on what might be. When are policies going to be based on what actually is?

Alex Mitchell
Alex Mitchell
1 year ago
Reply to  Ben Scott

What it does do is demonstrate the futility of a zero covid target. There are obviously diseases that have been eradicated but that’s a decades long job. Even if you achieve it, as we have in NZ, you can’t maintain it without cutting yourself off from the rest of the world while they get to the same level.

Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Mitchell

I really don’t understand the new variant issue either. There will have been loads and loads up to now and the day when the approval of the first vaccine is announced, a new and improved covid, up to 70% more effective, is announced.
On top of that you are told that even if you are fully vaccinated it matters not, the lockdown continues because this, that and the other.
If that wasn’t enough, being in Scotland I get preached daily by Sturgeon.
How can you be surprised in one loses the will to live?

Dave Tagge
Dave Tagge
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Mitchell

SARS-CoV-2 seems to be a pretty bad candidate for eradication, based on what I’ve read about lessons from the successful effort to eradicate smallpox.

SARS-CoV-2 exists in animal reservoirs with documented transmission back and forth between animals and humans (at least with mink, quite possibly also other animals).

Smallpox has a far higher IFR, so more incentive for people and countries to participate in ongoing widespread vaccination programs.

Smallpox infection or vaccine typically confers lifetime immunity. We don’t know if that’s the case with SARS-CoV-2.

Actually, caveat to the above: we know that even though the current COVID vaccines are very effective as a group, they don’t confer complete immunity. Some people still develop symptomatic infections.

SARS-CoV-2 is asymptomatic in some people. It causes mild, non-specific respiratory symptoms in many others.

The existing vaccines haven’t yet been tested and approved for use by children. Even if they are ultimately approved for children, I assume that could be a more typical vaccine approval times (i.e., years) at least in some countries. We know that SARS-CoV-2 isn’t very dangerous to children, so I’d expect there to be an understandable caution in making sure that the vaccines meet a high safety and tolerance standard for children.

Add it all up, and I don’t see

Eva Rostova
Eva Rostova
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Mitchell

Or until they vaccinate?

Alex Mitchell
Alex Mitchell
1 year ago
Reply to  Eva Rostova

Hence my point about the decades long wait that other vaccines took to reach an eradication level effectiveness

Eva Rostova
Eva Rostova
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Mitchell

The policy is not to eradicate SARS-Cov-2. It’s to make it manageable like the seasonal flu. And the data from Israel already strongly suggests that vaccination will achieve that.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago

“Should the UK follow a ZeroCovid approach?”

There is no such thing. It’s a PR tactic.

Eva Rostova
Eva Rostova
1 year ago

Heard of New Zealand? Australia?

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago
Reply to  Eva Rostova

Both had COVID cases. Both have COVID cases today. Don’t confuse a PR banner waving tactic with zero covid.

Eva Rostova
Eva Rostova
1 year ago

I accept your narrow point, but “Zero Covid” is a strategy directed at maximal suppression, not a factual statement of how many SARS-Cov-2 infections there have been in any given place.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago
Reply to  Eva Rostova

It’s a PR strategy, nothing more. There is no Zero Covid. It’s a virus – one that many people have and pass along without even knowing they have it.

Eva Rostova
Eva Rostova
1 year ago

Come on, Annette. Speak with friends in Oz/NZ if you have any there. Or alternatively watch some TV coverage of what life is like down there. It’s not a PR strategy, it’s been a very successful public health (including mental health) and economic strategy for them.

Moreover, the Israeli vaccine data so far suggest that Oz/NZ’s Zero Covid strategy should be sustainable and allow borders to reopen in a controlled manner.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago
Reply to  Eva Rostova

Of course it’s a PR strategy and a good one, apparently. Viruses do not act differently based on government edicts. This is a virus that millions of people have and transmit without knowing it – everywhere. Nor can lockdowns be enforced as evidenced by the recent behavior on Australia Day, when thousands ignored them and protested. New Zealand just approved its first vaccine YESTERDAY and won’t begin vaccination until March.

News flash, borders will reopen all over the world.

Eva Rostova
Eva Rostova
1 year ago

Sorry, Annette, but you’ve completely lost me. Obviously borders will reopen. What’s your point?

My point is that at this rate Oz and NZ will reopen their borders having suffered barely any public health consequences and relatively little economic damage, compared with e.g. Europe and the US. These are the facts — unless something radically changes now, which is always possible.

When viewed from that perspective, I’d say the Zero Covid suppression strategy has worked rather well for Oz and NZ, so far.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago
Reply to  Eva Rostova

New Zealand is an island with relatively little traffic compared to Europe and the US. All countries will reopen their borders some much faster than New Zealand because it’s so late with the vaccine.

You fell for the PR strategy as I pointed out earlier.

Eva Rostova
Eva Rostova
1 year ago

Once again Annette, you digress and keep failing to address my point. Are you saying residents of NZ and Oz are in a worse position right now than those of, say, Europe and the US? Because that’s a very bold position to take, even assuming vaccination occurs only in the second half of 2021 and borders remain highly controlled until then. I suspect you don’t know anyone living in NZ/Oz.

Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago

Alas places of worship are closed in Scotland (really for no reason) and nobody has really complained about it.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I have a genuine question. My wife is a church warden and she is really missing the services badly. However, at the churches around where we live she admits that the average ages of the congregations are about 70. Many people are over 80.

Is it really responsible for all concerned that these churches should open as normal? You can hardly put an age limit on the congregation, can you?

Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Why not? For starters you don’t have to go if you feel unsafe or are particularly at risk.
In any case, clearly you have not been inside a church. I can tell you they are the safest palaces in Christendom, and not because of the Holy Spirit.
If you feel churches are risky then the same people should go nowhere as there is really nowhere safer

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrea X

You miss my point. I spend a lot of time in the church. But I don’t understand why they are safe because they feel cosy.

Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I don’t know about your church, but the ones I have seen up here between masks, distancing, gel etc. you couldn’t catch anything even if you wanted to. It is like entering a clean room.
It is not a matter of feeling cosy, but it is objectively safer than any other place I have been to, including the dentist, A&E and, most of all, any supermarket.
I have seen masses being celebrated down south and, although they differ from place to place, the overall feeling remains.

Dave Tagge
Dave Tagge
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

As Miriam Cates says in this interview: “Why do we live? It’s not just to avoid death. We live for all sorts of reasons.”

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

I have a problem with the whole thing – BUT it doesn’t mean that disagree with it. This is exactly the kind of thing which gives science a bad name. Ms Cates is built up at the beginning as a scientist which is supposed to mean something but then most her points are not really scientific. She talks about the confidence of children (not scientific), the church (not scientific), the measurement of fulfilment (not scientific) and then she questions the science regarding new strains of the virus which is at least a scientific question.

I am a scientist and I get really bad feelings when people claim that they are scientists so they must know the truth. The whole thing could have been written without the science build up. If the science part is questioning the merits of the lockdown, then thousands have tried and no one seems to be better than another.

Other than that, the points are all good and have to be answered.

Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Her point is that our life is not solely made of measurements, but there are other things and some are equally scientific as epidemiology is not the only science around.

Alex Camm
Alex Camm
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Are you not claiming to be a scientist and also attempting to speak the truth?

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
1 year ago

The only way around this was a programme of measured infection for the young with low doses of the virus administered. But we are not brave enough as a society to consider let alone attempt this, which is understandable. Who would put forward a policy of deliberately infecting people with a disease? It’s scary. But the reality is this was the only way out. As a result, kids have lost schooling and the opportunity to gain immunity and society has lost a large portion of the herd immunity to combat the disease.

Graham Thorpe
Graham Thorpe
1 year ago

Another great interview, with the interviewee allowed to develop her argument. That alone is worth the watch (in common of course with all the interviews on this channel). Her point is surely important and it’s a bit depressing that some posters below seem to miss the relevance of a trained scientist making it…