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2 February 2021

Why Boris Johnson can’t claim to have “followed the science” on Covid-19

In recent months the Prime Minister has repeatedly defied prescient warnings by Sage over the pandemic. 

By Freddie Hayward

“We will follow the science” has become one of the catchphrases of the coronavirus pandemic. The government has repeatedly sought to assure the country that its decisions are informed by expertise. On 19 December, as he announced new restrictions on Christmas mixing, Boris Johnson declared: “We have said throughout this pandemic that we must and we will be guided by the science. When the science changes, we must change our response.”

But how true is this? Throughout the pandemic, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric has been contradicted by his actions. Today’s Times reports that Sage warned the government two weeks ago that only mandatory hotel quarantine for all travellers would prevent new Covid-19 strains from being imported into the UK. “Geographically targeted travel bans,” the scientists said, would not be sufficient. Yet Johnson proceeded to announce quarantine measures only for travellers from 30 “high-risk” countries and Britain has recorded 105 cases of the South African variant and 77 cases of the Brazilian one. 

This was not an isolated incident. On 2 December, Sage advised the government that restricting Christmas mixing to one or two days would be “considerably less risky” than the proposed five-day reopening. But Johnson refused to concede and declared that cancelling Christmas would be “inhuman”. The Prime Minister backtracked on 19 December and restricted mixing to Christmas Day, though the farcically short notice meant that many people proceeded with their original plans. 

During last week’s press conference after the announcement of 100,000 UK deaths, Johnson insisted: “We did everything that we could to minimise suffering and minimise loss of life.” Immediately after that answer, asked whether there was too much mixing in December, the NHS chief executive Simon Stevens said: “The facts, as we see it in the health service, are that on Christmas Day we had 18,000 coronavirus positive patients and now we’ve got just under 33,000.” His message was clear.

In defence of its haphazard approach, the government pointed to the increased transmissibility of the new Covid-19 strain. But even before this development, coronavirus cases were rising after the summer lull. For this reason, Sage recommended a short “circuit-breaker” to reduce infection levels on 21 September. Yet the government waited until 31 October to announce a four-week lockdown.

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In addition, as our medical editor, Phil Whitaker, noted in his recent New Statesman cover story, Sage warned in July “of the potential for a clinically significant mutation to occur during the winter. At the same time, the shadow group Independent Sage repeatedly urged the Johnson administration to take advantage of the summer hiatus to change its policy to a ‘zero-Covid’ strategy. This could have driven infection rates into the ground. Instead, we got ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ and the progressive easing of restrictions that allowed daily case numbers to continue in four figures right into the autumn, pump priming the inevitable second wave.” 

In a report published last December, the Institute for Government warned that ministers’ insistence that they were “following the science” was “inaccurate and damaging”. It criticised the lack of integration between scientists and other parts of government – the Treasury, for instance, did not consult the government’s leading epidemiologists when designing policies such as Eat Out to Help Out, while the Imperial College Covid-19 model does not include economic data.

“Following” the science is, of course, distinct from being “informed” by it. Science is not a simple panacea that can be deployed at will. The discipline is constantly evolving (with intense and frequent disagreements) and government policy must reflect other factors such as economics, human psychology and ethical questions about the value of individual lives and civil liberties. And Sage is far from infallible: at the outset of the pandemic it advised the government against a lockdown and the introduction of mandatory facemasks, decisions that have since been discredited. 

But faced with the UK’s inglorious record – one of the highest death rates in the world and the worst economic recession of any major country except Spain – we might well ask how Britain would have fared had Johnson truly been “guided” by science throughout.