Robert Peston

Is Boris wise or foolish to ignore the scientists?

Is Boris wise or foolish to ignore the scientists?
(Photo by TOBY MELVILLE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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It is important to understand the gap between the Prime Minister and the scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) because it is huge.

On 21 September, when evidence was accumulating that infections were on the rise, Sage recommended a series of national measures. These included the closures of pubs and restaurants or an even more severe restriction on our freedoms in short sharp national 'circuit breakers'.

Instead, Boris Johnson has adopted a regional approach to stamping out coronavirus. And even the 'baseline' measures he is imposing on 'very high risk' areas such as Merseyside are seen as inadequate by his scientific advisers — as his chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, told me at the press conference yesterday.

What I can't judge is whether the Prime Minister has made a brave judgement that the economic costs of following his scientists' advice will do more net harm — including to health — than following what they recommend.

Or whether he has made a more cynical judgement that too many of his supporters are fed up with restrictions on their freedoms, and that he lacks the political capital — or the backbone — to tell them they are wrong.

The stakes for him could not be higher. Sage is saying that without more decisive interventions, the first onerous lockdown will have been almost for nothing — because there will be a second massive hump of hospitalisations and deaths in the coming three months.

This delay of the catastrophe rather than its elimination is precisely what Whitty and his colleagues feared would happen when they agonised about imposing the initial lockdown. So if the second wave becomes a reality, it is not obvious that the Prime Minister's authority would ever recover.

P.S. His authority has not exactly been reinforced by Sage's reflection that the billions of pounds he has deployed on creating NHS Test and Trace is having only 'a marginal effect on [Covid-19] transmission'.

Now listen to today's Coffee House Shotswith Cindy Yu, Katy Balls and James Forsyth discussing whether the government has stopped 'following the science'.

Written byRobert Peston

Robert Peston is Political Editor of ITV News and host of the weekly political discussion show Peston. This post originally appeared on his ITV News blog

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