Coronavirus: scientists versus the government

With the coronavirus now spreading more rapidly in the UK, a huge gulf has opened up between epidemiologists and public health researchers on one side and the government on the other.

And in the absence of clear directions from government, others – from managers of universities and workplaces to families – are making their own decisions.

The fact that the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has grabbed the headlines this morning, urging stronger measures, shows just how lost Boris Johnson’s government is.

But the most damaging criticism of the government I have seen is from medical and scientific experts polled by the Guardian yesterday for their reaction to Johnson’s announcement.

Their language was measured, even understated. They were extremely careful not to exaggerate.

An illustration by Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing the structure of a coronavirus

(Senior climate scientists do the same: these highly privileged, clever people who have spent decades working their way to the top of their professions – and for whom dealing with politicians is part of the job – chose their words carefully.)

If we read their comments with all that in mind, they are devastating.

Professor Paul Hunter at the Norwich Medical School: “I was expecting there to be something a bit more rigorous. […] Just telling elderly people to not go on cruises isn’t enough to protect them. I would’ve hoped we’d be seeing more targeted advice for elderly and vulnerable citizens […]. I think they’ve been left out on a limb. [My emphasis, GL.]

Hunter’s most damning point was about the government’s lack of transparency: “I would like to see a bit more about why they’re not closing schools and banning large events. We do know, in general, that school holidays lead to a marked reduction of transmission in infections […]. I’m sure it’s based on good quality science. But we don’t know what that science is. The science isn’t being shared with us in a way that makes it easy for us to understand the logical basis for all of this.”

And again, in case they didn’t hear the first time: “I would hope that more of the information and science that the government is relying on to make these decisions would be made available so we could interrogate it and see if it’s valid. Unless that happens, there’s a risk of losing the trust of the scientific community and the public.”

Dr Jennifer Rohn, cell biologist at University College London: “I was surprised and disappointed to see nothing on testing. The people with suggestive symptoms should be tested during their self-isolation, so that we can maintain more reliable data […]. What is government doing on increasing our supply of testing kits and the workforce to go out and test people at their homes?”

And: “Not banning major events now is the biggest disappointment and surprise for me. I think buy-in would be high anyway – many will already choose not to attend.”

Professor Deenan Pillay, a professor of virology at University College, perhaps anxious to find something positive, complimented the government for not being as insanely racist as US president Donald Trump: “I’m very pleased there isn’t the sort of reaction we’ve seen in the US to close borders. This infection is now circulating in the UK and it’s important that, wherever those infections come from, there’s an understanding that we’re responsible for dealing with all of them and avoid the xenophobia that has emerged and that would be perpetuated by an insular approach.”

Not all scientists are reticent and cautious, of course. Professor John Ashton, former regional director of public health for north-west England – perhaps because of his personality, perhaps because he is retired – felt less need for restraint.

The government “are behaving like 19th-century colonialists playing a five-day game of cricket”, he told the Guardian in an interview.

“This virus will find the weak points. You can’t just plan this from an office in Whitehall. It’s pathetic. The government doesn’t seem to understand classic public health”, he said. The idea that the NHS is in a position to cope with large numbers of extra patients is “a joke”.

Researchers’ opinions are not sacred. But they are people who know stuff – the “experts” (as in Michael Gove’s immortal phrase: “people in this country have had enough of experts”).

This morning the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance went on the radio to defend the strategy announced yesterday. He claimed the idea is to “reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely” – and, by allowing many people to contract a mild form of the disease, to “build up some kind of herd immunity”.

My reaction to that is: I am not a public health researcher and I don’t know. But how do you answer Paul Hunter’s point that you are not sharing the science so those who do know can not judge?

In any case, by mid-morning, the football authorities – hardly a gang of raging subversives – had ignored the government’s approach to large-scale public gatherings, and cancelled all matches until at least 3 April. They join the governments of Ireland and most other European countries in outflanking Johnson and co.

Some friends I saw today reminded me of the government’s underlying commitment to protect business, rather than people, and argued that that explains the approach to coronavirus. I take their point. Coronavirus will hit working people and less privileged people hardest and these are people that Tories don’t give a damn about. But that doesn’t fully explain the incoherence and illogicality of the government’s policy. Capitalism’s need for public health standards was well established in this country from the mid 19th century.

In my view, while this is not only about politicians’ incompetence, it is about their reluctance to listen to experts (grounded in the scorched-earth ideology exemplified by Dominic Cummings), about their fear of transparency, and – since this is a very public emergency in which the whole population is affected, and is also an actor – their in-built hatred of allowing society itself to take any initiative.

This was pinpointed by the former regional health director John Ashton, who, in the Guardian survey taken yesterday, said: “In three months we’ve gone from ‘we don’t need experts’ to ‘we are the experts, we will tell you what to do’, and neither position is right. You do need expertise but you also need to trust the population.”

Ashton gave the outlines of a more coherent approach: “They are issuing some semi-directive things but they are not really doing what we need to do, which is to mobilise and encourage communities, neighbourhoods, families to form their own plans for the next period in which the local situation will influence what happens – whether it’s not going out to eat, or stopping sporting events.

“It will be determined by the data, which they should be sharing promptly and fully with everybody so that people can decide for their town, village, neighbourhood what they need to do. If everybody reduced the amount of mixing time that they’ve got, that would help to slow things down.”

That’s among the soundest advice I have seen, in this confusing and scary situation, and I intend to take it into account, and encourage friends and comrades to do so too.

Stay safe and look after each other. GL, 13 March 2020.

2 Responses to Coronavirus: scientists versus the government

  1. Tim Gopsill says:

    I would have thought Johnson’s motivation is clear enough. Yesterday Asian stock markets slumped. In London the FTSE after Johnson’s “announcement” — he didn’t actually “announce” anything except that large numbers are going to die — went up.

  2. […] Since the start, this crisis has featured forceful opposition to the government’s combination of heartless calculation and chaotic indifference from medical researchers. Some of them have completely abandoned the pretence that research exists separate from politics: for example, Devi Sridhar suggested in a recent article “what you should be demanding from your government”. Allyson Pollock and Anthony Costello are equally outspoken. […]

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