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

February 2, 2021
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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.


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