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30 March 2020

Coronavirus is a culture war: between certainty and uncertainty

The clash between politics and science over coronavirus is adding to public confusion. 

By Stephen Bush

The coronavirus crisis is a culture war: between on the one hand, a political culture that craves certainty and absolutes, and on the other, a scientific culture that is rooted in uncertainty. When Boris Johnson said that the virus could be defeated in 12 weeks he was fuelling the former – and potentially storing up political difficulties for him personally.

Now Jennifer Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, has warned that the United Kingdom could be experiencing a form of social distancing for at least six months. She has not, despite what is being reported in some places, said it will take six months. It’s worth reading what she’s said in full: “Three weeks for review, two or three months to see whether we have really squashed it but about three to six months ideally, and lots of uncertainty in that, but then to see at which point we can actually get back to normal.”

The hope is that over the coming days we will see a reduction in the number of cases – that hasn’t happened yet. The death rate appears to have slowed, but the reason for this is that, as the number of cases increase, it’s taking longer to inform the next of kin (this isn’t a Covid-19-era change, but established practice – but it’s one reason why the day-to-day figures may present a more optimistic account on some days and an unduly pessimistic one on others). 

And that may – with an emphasis on the word may – mean that this period of reduced physical and social contact can end sooner rather than later. But as Harries says, it might not: there’s a great deal of uncertainty. 

Listeners to our podcast will know that the team is divided – on the one hand I think that we in the press bear our own share of responsibility for fuelling false hope about how quickly this might be over. On the other hand, everyone else thinks that ultimately the PM has an eye for a headline and knew exactly what he was doing with that 12 weeks’ remark. 

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Who’s right? Well in a sense it doesn’t matter very much. Johnson might yet be bailed out by a sudden scientific advance or some other breakthrough. He might yet exit this crisis with the Conservatives’ huge, Covid-fuelled opinion poll lead intact. But if this isn’t over in six months, let alone the three Johnson suggested, then whether he is the sole architect, or merely a contributing factor to an unhelpful level of certainty about how quickly this may all be over, will neither be here nor there.