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12 January 2022updated 05 May 2022 11:59am

Muted and deferential, the UK’s scientists have failed the pandemic test

Throughout the pandemic, senior advisers and institutions have failed to challenge a post-truth government. It bodes ill for the climate crisis.

By Philip Ball

In the weeks before Christmas, as Covid case numbers rose again, Conservative MPs targeted England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty. He was “unelected”, Joy Morrissey wrote in a since deleted tweet: “This is not a public health socialist state.” In the Commons, backbenchers accused Whitty of excessive caution in his advice to reduce socialising. Greg Smith complained that the chief medical officer had “press[ed] the panic button way beyond what this House voted for”.

The dismissal of scientific expertise was the natural endpoint of a relationship between science and politics that has been problematic since the pandemic began. The barbs aimed at Whitty were shameful, especially in the wake of the public harassment he had received. And although England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam received less overt opposition from MPs, it was notable that, when he announced on 13 January that he would be stepping down from his role, he thanked his fellow scientists but none of the politicians he had worked alongside.

Yet it would be a mistake to portray this as a conflict between ignorant politicians and forthright scientists; at times there has been a dangerous complicity between the two. The Johnson government has lied to the public, disregarded its own rules, handed out deals to friends, destroyed public trust, and been generally incompetent. And yet its scientific advisers have pursued their jobs as if it were business as usual. It is delusional to think you can give advice to Boris Johnson in the same objective manner as you would to, say, Gordon Brown. The determination to do so has contributed to “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”, in the words of a damning report on the early pandemic response published last October by two  parliamentary science committees.

In the age of post-truth, populist politics, the mechanisms for feeding science into policy are no longer fit for purpose. According to James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at Sheffield University, “The entire science advisory system feels as if it has been fundamentally – perhaps fatally – compromised by the pandemic.”

In his view, we have retreated significantly from the progress achieved after the BSE “mad cow” epidemic, and the 1990s era of public resistance to genetically modified food. The scientific community’s relationship with government needs a serious overhaul. And fast – not just because future pandemics are inevitable, but because there is a second crisis that will hinge on scientific expertise: the climate emergency.

Chris Whitty was traduced for daring to recommend, as the number of cases of infection rose rapidly because of the Omicron variant, that we “prioritise the social interactions that really matter”. Many perceived this as at odds with Boris Johnson’s suggestion, at the same Downing Street press briefing on 15 December 2021, that “we’re not cancelling people’s parties or their ability to mix”.

But in truth this was the mildest of dissonances. Whitty seemed to be speaking almost in semaphore, as if wanting to signal the gravity of the situation without explicitly contradicting the Prime Minister.

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That’s been a problem from the start. Johnson’s boast of having shaken everyone’s hands during a hospital visit on 3 March 2020 merely led the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance to offer the muted advice to “wash your hands” afterwards. Questioned about Dominic Cummings’s breach of lockdown rules at a press briefing in May 2020, Whitty’s response – that he had no desire to “get pulled into politics” – seemed naive and misguided. Cummings’s transgression had public health implications: surveys showed that trust in government advice plummeted after the absurd theatre of the adviser’s “rose garden” press conference at No 10.

There has been a similar silence on the refusal of Tory MPs to wear masks. Witness Johnson’s maskless visit to Hexham general hospital last November, and to Cop26, where he was photographed without a mask (and asleep) next to 95-year-old David Attenborough. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s defence in the Commons – that his party is protected from Covid by a spirit of “convivial fraternity” – was a trademark puerile provocation. But it was also blatant misinformation, seriously undermining the government’s message last autumn that people were “expected and recommended to continue wearing a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces”.

“The [idea of] ‘only wearing masks with people you don’t know well’ is infuriating and completely against scientific advice,” says Kit Yates of Bath University, a mathematician who serves on Independent Sage, a non-official coalition of experts that convened in May 2020 as an unaffiliated alternative to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). Even as MPs debated the reintroduction of mandatory masks in November, some defied the existing guidance. “There are egregious examples of irresponsible behaviours being normalised by politicians and not corrected by ‘official scientists’,” says Yates.

The usual narrative has been that Whitty, Vallance and others have tried doggedly to maintain an appearance of unity with politicians in order to avoid undermining public trust, or because they feel it is their duty, or both. Whatever the rationale, such an approach is not good enough; it means that scientists get sucked into a dysfunctional governance. When the second wave loomed in September 2020, Jeremy Farrar, a former member of Sage, asked: “By remaining in  central advisory roles, are we complicit in  the outcomes?”

Yes, according to James Wilsdon of Sheffield University. “I think it’s hard to disentangle some of what we’re seeing from the government on masks and so on from the broader rise of a form of ‘post-accountability politics’, in which MPs and top officials no longer need to justify breaches of ethical or  procedural standards. It has now completely infected the British body politic. And as the top science advisers work so closely with and for their political masters, it seems inevitable that this infection has spread to them, too.”

These concerns were raised in the summer lull of 2020. Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, told me then that “the relationship between the scientific advisers and politicians in the early phase of the epidemic was strangely collusive”. Wilsdon, too, was troubled from the start. “The very first moment I saw those press conferences, with the CMO [Whitty] and GCSA [Vallance] flanking the Prime Minister it rang all sorts of alarm bells, in terms of lines of accountability and the blurring of the distinction between advice and decision-making.”

Wait in vain: Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme has been accused of fuelling Covid. Photo by Simon Walker/HM Treasury

There was more than a whiff of collusion in the initial “herd immunity” strategy accepted by Sage, which aimed to let the virus flow in a controlled manner through the population until enough people had natural immunity (if they were not dead) to end the pandemic. The idea that you could turn transmission up or down like a tap, especially without the guidance of a testing programme worthy of the name, was fantastical. Some in Sage now wonder how they could collectively have made such an error of judgement. But they should be wondering why that mistake led in precisely the direction that a libertarian, populist government would welcome.

Last October’s report reductively put this down to “groupthink”, remarking that “it was surprising that the initially fatalistic assumptions about the impossibility of suppressing the virus were not challenged”.

In other words, if ministers were at fault, it was for not pushing back hard enough on herd immunity. But it’s ludicrous to suppose that a libertarian government that has sacrificed lives in its efforts to avoid lockdowns (in autumn 2020, Johnson is alleged to have insisted “no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands”) would have sought tighter restrictions than those the scientists were advocating.

Here at least, Cummings’s assessment rings true: the scientists did not push for a lockdown in early March 2020, he told a select committee in May last year, because they knew Johnson “doesn’t really believe in it”. Worse, they took on board the Prime Minister’s nationalistic exceptionalism: the idea that such policies might work in compliant Taiwan or China, but freedom-loving Brits wouldn’t stand for it. Michael Parker, a bioethicist at Oxford, has called this view “a kind of racism”.

More generally, Sage badly misjudged its tone. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust since 2013, has pointed out that the minutes of some crucial meetings in March 2020 were far too anodyne, failing to convey the urgency and even desperation the scientists felt. His conclusion that Sage “could have done better in speaking truth to power” is itself an understatement: thousands of lives might have been saved had ministers been given less latitude.

[see also: To level up public health, the government must pay attention to the social factors underpinning it]

And now that they have taken to gaslighting the public about herd immunity – it was “absolutely not” the strategy, the Home Secretary Priti Patel told Andrew Marr last May – scientists have made little attempt to correct the record. Farrar has confirmed in his book Spike that Patel was not telling the truth, but others dodge the issue – or, like the former deputy chief medical adviser for England Jenny Harries, join the denial.

For many scientists I spoke to, Harries has gone from adviser to government apologist – and in Cummings’s view, she has benefited accordingly. She now heads the UK Health Security Agency, which replaced Public Health England. Her input has often been unhelpful, and occasionally damaging.

Early in the pandemic Harries warned that masks might do more harm than good; her claim in April 2020 that the UK was an “international exemplar” in pandemic preparedness was patently wrong; and she dismissed World Health Organisation (WHO) advice to conduct extensive testing, on the basis that such measures were meant for low-income countries – a suggestion Farrar calls “a dreadful thing to say”.

In a BBC interview last October, Vallance said scientific advisers should be “fearless… even if it is uncomfortable”, an ambition that has scarcely been borne out in public. We have seen more of the deferential notion he has cited that “scientists advise, politicians decide”. As well as being the government’s chief scientific adviser, Vallance is now national technology adviser and head of the Office for Science and Technology Strategy in the Cabinet Office, where he is likely to have considerable influence on how funding is allocated.

Since his resignation from Sage last November, Farrar has, by contrast, become a strong critic of the way the pandemic has been handled. He described the appointment of Dido Harding, a businesswoman and Tory peer, to lead the calamitous test-and-trace system as “a grave error”; and said the  Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme contributed to Covid’s devastating second wave. It is not clear that, as some have suggested, that Farrar resigned in protest at the sidelining of Sage; his position as director of the Wellcome Trust ends in 2023, and he may want to concentrate on that. But the better question is whether he might have stayed if he believed Sage was having an impact.

If chief advisers have felt they cannot  contradict ministers – they are bound by the civil service code to “act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of ministers” – then this must change. That code does not acknowledge the possibility that the government itself might disregard it, or act so recklessly as to force advisers to decide between a duty to public health or to ministers. When they cannot publicly correct dangerous  misinformation, the system has failed.

There is no barrier to scientific advisers pushing back robustly on ministers: David King did so as chief adviser to Tony Blair, when he encountered opposition to his conviction that nuclear power was needed in the UK’s climate strategy. The current advisory system was established in part to address problematic government interventions – for instance, the then agriculture minister John Gummer’s misjudged attempt to persuade the public that British beef was safe during the BSE outbreak by getting his young daughter to eat a burger in front of cameras. The Phillips Report that followed that crisis emphasised the need for greater transparency. The public, it said, should be given the information that shapes the scientific advice, and trusted to respond rationally. We shouldn’t be reduced to interpreting facial expressions to figure out whether scientific advisers agree with ministers.

It was a lack of transparency in the science advice early in the pandemic that led King to convene Independent Sage in May 2020. This non-official coalition of experts aimed to be more public-facing. Not everyone welcomed the intervention – the name itself invited confusion – but it was unprecedented, and spoke of serious problems with the existing system.

Sage’s transparency has improved, for example with the publication of its minutes since late May 2020. But that is still not true of all science input into pandemic policy (of which Sage is only a part). No one will say, for example, where the lockdown-delaying but groundless idea of “behavioural fatigue” (the idea that people cease obeying rules if they go on too long) entered the picture; Sage’s behavioural scientists deny that it came from them. And the scientific support Johnson adduced for the pointless 10pm curfew in September 2020 is nowhere to be seen.

The vaccine roll-out has been the biggest scientific triumph of the pandemic, but it hasn’t eased science-policy interactions. While ministers falsely and repeatedly claim that the speed of the UK’s vaccine programme is an example of the long-elusive Brexit dividend, the chief scientists have said nothing. For a populist government keen to ditch restrictions, the vaccines seemed a godsend – even though it was obvious to specialists (and has proved to be the case) that vaccines alone were unlikely to end the pandemic, or even to keep infections low.

For much of 2021 it seemed that ministers had been briefed to brush aside all embarrassments with the response, “But we gave you vaccines”: they were politically weaponised. Johnson used the booster programme to deflect difficult questions about the Owen Paterson parliamentary suspension debacle.

This silence from scientists amid such  opportunism reflects a complex relationship. “I think the extent to which the entire science system – both research and advice – continues to rely on a halo effect from the vaccine programme is a real problem,” says Wilsdon of Sheffield University. “The Oxford-AstraZeneca success has now acquired quasi-mythical status and is portrayed as washing away all earlier failings, including in the advisory system. This is hugely convenient for the government, and is already yielding significant extra government investment into the research system. So both politicians and science advisers are complicit, and benefit from an account which exaggerates the positives, and erases or downplays what went wrong.”

Part of the problem is operational: emergency structures such as Sage were never designed to function continuously for a long period. But many scientists seem reluctant to recognise that being objective and non-partisan is not the same as being non-interventionist, or indeed supine.

Whitty, Vallance and other advisers can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing how best to work with a government that flouts rules for ideological or personal reasons, manipulates figures, and gives money and jobs to its friends. A mechanism designed for politicians such as Blair or John Major was unlikely to be adequate for Johnson.

But it is not a problem that will vanish with Boris Johnson, in a Conservative Party that has become so radicalised. With a significant parliamentary contingent prepared to sabotage public health, and politicians and the media increasingly emboldened to discredit science advisers (“Cassandras in lab coats”, “the misery guts on Sage”), even a muted public voice for science can’t be taken for granted.

The Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey offered a hint, as early as May 2020, that scientists will be blamed if necessary. In response to criticisms of Covid strategy, she said: “If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong, I’m not surprised if people will then think we made a wrong decision.”

The scientific community needs to wake up. A policy of appeasement, normalisation and objective detachment has not worked. The problem is not merely political misbehaviour; it involves scepticism of science itself. The No 10 Christmas parties, as well as the socially distanced drinks reportedly held at Downing Street in May 2020, didn’t just show disdain for the rules; they suggest the organisers did not accept a deadly disease might be spread that way.

How will climate advice fare as a result? This is a global emergency of a different order, which demands in Britain a semi-permanent Sage of its own. It would need to  acknowledge it may have to work with a  government not temperamentally or intellectually committed to tackling the crisis.

Already there is a “Do as I say, not as I do” attitude to strategy reminiscent of that towards masks, as demonstrated when the government’s then Cop26 spokeswoman Allegra Stratton justified Johnson’s private flight back from Glasgow with a nonchalant shrug of “personal choice!”

“I think, post-Covid, there’s a pressing need to look holistically at the entire science advisory system,” says James Wilsdon. This must include giving chief scientists more independence, free from government chaperones or censure. Yes, they are civil servants – but if this means defending policies they don’t condone and turning a blind eye to misconduct and lies, we must ask where public interest enters the equation. The old notion (commonly attributed to Churchill) that scientists should be “on tap but not on top” is no longer enough, if it ever was.

You can understand the government’s desire to delay an inquiry into Covid. But there is a strange insouciance in the UK scientific community, too. In the US, leading scientists have called for an expert commission to assess the country’s response, as well as to prepare for the future. There has been no comparable demand here; bodies such as the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences have stayed quiet. It all feels very British: don’t make a fuss, don’t embarrass our own chaps.

The British chemistry Nobel laureate Fraser Stoddart told me the response of scientists in learned societies to “policy issues arising out of the UK government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic” has been “lacklustre”. They should, he said, “be calling for an independent inquiry into the mismanagement of the crisis. UK scientists in high places should be holding the government’s feet to the fire.”

If in Britain chief scientists aren’t willing to openly criticise bad policy and poor performance on climate issues, we will have to expect the worst. And if scientists and their institutions continue to shrug and carry on as before, to consider themselves objective public servants while indulging in the fantasy that they boldly “speak truth to power”, they will be fatally complicit.

[see also: Do vaccine sceptics deserve a voice?]

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage