Knee-jerk decisions are increasingly made over taking evidence-based advice. Photo: Getty
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Collective panic over ebola is just one example of the politics of fear gripping our leaders

Our experts are being drowned out by baying, panicked mobs, and in this increasingly voter-pleasing landscape, it’s the loudest who wins.

A government's job should be to educate and enlighten the people it serves, quelling its electorate’s fears by calling on the best information they have – and hire – for that very task.

However in recent weeks and months, with an ever increasing lurch towards populism and short-term electioneering, we’ve started to see our leaders pandering to – and therefore reinforcing – the public’s fears and hysteria, and in doing so, ignoring those inconvenient truths they are being told by experts.

The most recent example of this has been ebola, which, with cases of the virus reaching beyond West Africa, has understandably gripped the globe in a state of collective panic.

While it is undoubtedly a serious virus, Public Health England, a body nominated to advise the government, announced there were no plans to introduce screening for those arriving in the UK, explaining that this would mean screening “huge numbers of low-risk people”. This was supported by eminent scientists such as Professor David Mabey, who described it as a “pointless exercise with no meaningful impact on the risk of importing ebola into the UK”.

However, within days of the official guidance, and following a slew of panic-inducing headlines, it was announced that screening would be implemented at several border points, with the Labour MP and home affairs select committee chair Keith Vaz saying: “We can’t just accept what is being said by Public Health England. Of course it’s right that we should take medical advice but we need to be satisfied that the public feels enough is being done at our borders."

His language highlights the sole motivation, to make the public feel better, because after all, once its efficacy has been debunked by doctors, such measures are just illusion – a sop to an expectant public who want their temperatures taken to allay their fears, regardless of the evidence. Furthermore, while of course it is the government’s responsibility to provide reassurance, as virologist Professor Andrew Easton points out, it “can have the effect of confirming in the population the idea that there is an emergency, which is not the case.” Ultimately, this panic prevention does more harm than good.

That such knee-jerk policies are being formed under pressure from the most vociferous members of the electorate, media and opposition parties rather than in response to reasoned and evidence-based advice is becoming increasingly symptomatic of a wider problem across government, and depressingly, it’s not necessary to go that far back to find the last example.

Earlier this month, the Conservatives announced vague plans to scrap the human rights act, as well as a re-evaluation of our relationship with the ECHR, prompting consternation from legal spheres – not least of all its own former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, the MP who, up until July, was responsible for providing legal advice to the cabinet.

Interpreted as a reactionary measure to quell public concerns around the UK’s relationship with Europe, Grieve warned: “These proposals threaten to create domestic constitutional difficulties and to undermine our international reputation and influence for entirely illusory benefits.” Again, as with criticism of ebola screening, we have experts warning that such changes will have no discernible benefits. Similarly, Ken Clarke, another senior Conservative, also criticised the proposals, saying: “it is unthinkable to leave the European convention on human rights.” These are compelling arguments from the closest thing the government had to legal experts and yet it saw fit to dispense of their services in a reshuffle, instead kowtowing to scaremongering headlines influenced by a Ukip narrative.

If our politicians cannot – or choose not to – defer to those bodies that are in place to advise them, and their informed recommendations are dismissed at the drop of a media-induced maelstrom of fear, then what is the point in their existence and who is really in charge?

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism