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31 May 2020

The silence of the chief scientists is worrying and deeply political

The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, did not speak out when asked about the Dominic Cummings affair, compromising urgent public health messaging. This makes their positions untenable.

By Philip Ball

In the astonishing UK government update on the pandemic on the evening of Thursday 28 May, we watched the relationship between government and science collapse before our eyes. Much of the media coverage has focused on Boris Johnson’s muzzling of his chief medical officer (CMO) Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser (CSA) Patrick Vallance, as he intervened to prevent them from answering questions about the public health repercussions of Dominic Cummings breaking the lockdown rules. But that much was business as usual: we should by now be used to this increasingly isolated prime minister shutting down inconvenient debate.

Far more troubling to those who care about the role of scientific advice during the coronavirus crisis was the servile response from those two scientists. The comments I have received from other scientists confirm my fear that this dismal performance has not merely destroyed faith in Whitty and Vallance and threatened the government’s ability to manage this excruciatingly tricky stage of the pandemic. It has probably damaged the public image of science itself.

Two days before the press conference, I wrote in Prospect that the two chief scientists must speak up on the Cummings affair. Of course, no one can expect them pronounce on whether is it right he remains in his post (unless they resign first). But they needed to clarify whether, as the government had implied, Cummings had made a valid interpretation of the rules that the rest of us were too dim to see for ourselves.  

Civil servants cannot convene a press conference without the permission of ministers. So the crunch time would come when Vallance and Whitty were next permitted to stand before the press at these daily briefings. That gave them plenty of time to prepare a careful but honest and clear answer.

As it happened, the Durham police relieved them of the need to say if trips like Cummings’ were within the rules: they were not. (Don’t be misled by that “might” in the police statement, which is standard legalese to acknowledge that, while the police have decided there was a breach, it’s up the courts to decide criminal liability.) But there is more for the scientists to do than that. At stake is public compliance with the restrictions still in place and the track-and-trace measures now being rolled out. Thursday was the moment for them to say whether it was likely that damage had been done here, and to reinforce what is still expected of individuals.

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For those of you who did not watch the conference, I am loath to suggest you do, so abysmally does it reflect on the sense of broader public duty recognised by scientists like these. Suffice to say that the journalists Laura Kuenssberg, Robert Peston and Sam Coates played a blinder. They posed exactly the right questions directly to the scientists – and when Johnson intervened to prevent the CMO and CSA from answering a “political” question, reiterated why this is in fact an urgent matter for public health. 

When Coates asked if the scientists were comfortable being sidelined in this way (“a nod or shake of the head will suffice”), it became impossible for them to evade the issue any longer. Whitty’s response was “I can assure you that the desire not to get pulled into politics is far stronger on the part of Sir Patrick and me than it is in the Prime Minister.” Vallance backed him up: “I’m a civil servant – I don’t want to get involved in politics at all.”

This can’t be ascribed simply to astonishing naivety. As Peston pointed out, some of the very scientists advising Sage have expressed concerns that anecdotal reports of Cummings’ behaviour compromising observation of the rules may translate into larger and more persistent problems. Psychologist Robert West, on the behavioural sciences team feeding into Sage, tweeted: “The PM is 100 per cent wrong to say that journalist questions about the impact on public trust of his refusal to sack Cummings are about politics not science. They are behavioural science questions and should be answered by scientists. Early evidence is that it has been damaging.”

If Whitty and Vallance do not recognise this, they should not be in those jobs. If they know it is true but will not admit it for the sake of political expediency, they are violating the Civil Service Code and the Nolan principles to which those in public office are supposed to adhere of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.   

Imagine that, rather than Cummings, some celebrity had been spotted on an “eyesight-checking” spree to Barnard Castle – or worse, driving his partner with suspected Covid-19 symptoms across the country – and who was now protesting he had done nothing wrong. We would be rightly appalled if, asked to comment on the public confusion the story was causing, the chief scientists had said “not our department”. No, surely they would have responded that the judgement of the police had made it very clear that these are not things we should be doing. Not only would that have helped to bolster public compliance with health measures, but it would have told everyone who has made tremendous sacrifices in keeping to the restrictions that they did the right thing and hadn’t been played for fools. It would have sent a clear message, both morally and pragmatically.

Yes, Johnson would have not liked it if they had done this on 28 May. That is not supposed to matter to the CMO and CSA. Their failure was made all the more apparent in the press conference on Saturday 31 May, in which the deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam did not duck the inevitable Cummings question, but said, “In my opinion [the rules] are for the benefit of all. In my opinion they apply to all.”

In other words, far from being “apolitical”, the silence of the CMO and CSA was itself deeply political. This is the truth that history has shown science again and again, but which some scientists still resolutely refuse to recognise: remaining silent when you need to speak up is not to remain neutral or aloof from politics. Sometimes it becomes complicity.

The editor of The Lancet Richard Horton has warned that the presence of supposedly independent scientists behind Johnson, Hancock and others as they bend facts and juggle with numbers, evade important questions and now defend the indefensible, risks propping up an incompetent and mendacious government with ersatz authority. But we can now see it is worse than that. The CMO and CSA will not stand up for the many scientists and health workers now concerned that Johnson’s blind support for Cummings, come what may, could wreck efforts to encourage responsible behaviour and so put lives at risk. Even as supposedly “impartial scientists”, they will not dare upset their leaders when it matters most. This will feed public suspicions that science makes itself an indiscriminate servant of whoever is in power. Again, history shows us where that has sometimes ended up.

How can we have any confidence that the latest, scientifically controversial easing of lockdown measures (it’s fine to drive across country to see parents!) isn’t an attempt to appease the public and blur the memory of what was expected when Cummings transgressed, rather than a carefully considered step? After all, it was obviously to protect Cummings that Hancock made an ad hoc offer retrospectively to “look at” lockdown fines issued against breaches made for childcare reasons.

This demonstration that the CMO and CSA will remain silent on urgent matters of public-health messaging that inconvenience the government renders their positions untenable. They should go – even if that would make them yet another part of the collateral damage caused by Cummings.

Philip Ball’s most recent book is “How To Build A Human” (William Collins)

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