Remember 'following the science' on Covid? It feels like a while. That was supposed to be about how we responded to a new virus posing an existential threat to society. But we now seem to have moved on to a purely political phase, focussed on rules written in the early phase of the epidemic (based on incomplete and mistaken information) before it became clearer that the threat we face is pretty far from existential.
While there’s plenty we don’t know about Covid, the big-picture science has been settled for some time already. As epidemics go it’s not that bad. It kills mainly the very old and infirm; children and fit people under 60ish often get away with mild or asymptomatic infection. Those who become ill do not, in fact, die like flies. About 99 per cent of them get better quite quickly. The raw death numbers that we have been bombarded with over the last months are highly unreliable and exaggerate the death toll. Many of the excess deaths will have been due to lockdown and its knock-on effects, rather than the virus.
Erroneous figures, incomplete models and emotive pictures frightened us. Over-zealous treatment, based on what we thought we knew about the disease, probably made things worse initially. Tearful frontline testimony was also powerful, but selected. However honourable and hard-working frontline staff may be, they are not usually the best sources of big-picture understanding. And we never saw images from units that were (and remain) half-empty.
But the scientific picture is there. That we have now fully embarked on a phase of politics masquerading as science may be harder to spot. Nothing demonstrates it better than the Dominic Cummings story. I’m not really interested here in the rights or wrongs of what he did with respect to the 'rules'. The point is that if lockdown and social distancing actually have any effect at all on the virus, it is difficult to see how driving to a different, empty house could realistically spread it. Social distancing and lockdown are supposed to be the measures 'protecting' us from the virus. So if you move to another location in a socially distanced manner – in the bubble of your car for instance – and lock down once there, how can you have significantly contributed to viral spread?
Ok, I’m sure you can make up some ways if you’re so inclined. But either the measures work or they don’t. If the measures work, we can forget about this story and concentrate on the important thing – the existential viral threat. But if they don’t really work in restraining the virus, then it cannot be an existential threat because it’s clearly on the wane anyway, here and in countries with rather different approaches to ours. Surely the relevant questions in this case, are not about the whys and wherefores of one individual, but about why on earth we are still continuing with measures that are massively harmful in their own right.
It’s as if politicians of all parties, scientific advisors, and many journalists have simply agreed that because of actions taken hitherto, the original half-a-million-Brits-might-die narrative must be considered correct, and everything else must flow from it. But I’m afraid this is not science in action, it’s political justification, pure and simple. Scientific data and interpretations change with time, sometimes rapidly, as in this case. So 'the science' has changed a lot since the early days of the epidemic, but the politics remains full steam ahead on the initial setting. Among many other examples, witness proposed UK quarantine regulations about to be introduced, months after the horse bolted, at precisely the same time that restrictions are being relaxed elsewhere. You couldn’t make it up.
On the one hand we have the unedifying spectacle of our government and their scientific advisors jostling to hide behind each other in order to avoid being the ones to take responsibility for changing coronavirus measures. Knowing, perhaps, that the coming inquiry will know far better how many lives were taken by lockdown – and how much use lockdown was as a tool to repress the virus.
On the other hand, we have non-government politicians and journalists talking right round the most important issues. Instead of questioning the very need for a continuation of measures causing great direct harm to lives and livelihoods, they discuss with the government details of the past failures and future implementations of exaggerated policy, as if this were the key point at the moment. Or they focus for days on the alleged behaviour of one advisor to the government, while failing to question the rationale for the ongoing devastation of education, health and economy unfolding in front of us.
Have a look at Philip Ziegler’s book The Black Death for a fascinating compendium of what happens when a really lethal disease appears. When that happens you see wholesale desertion of towns, collapse of food chains and financial systems, piles of unburied bodies in the streets, parents abandoning their children, the elderly left to fend for themselves. You see empty houses and shops, cattle wandering the countryside, dogs in the streets and people dying of starvation. Don’t kid yourself that people were so different from us 700 years ago, that this disease could ever have been anything like that, or that the measures taken have prevented anything even remotely approaching it. The science, at least, is clear on that.
What we have been living through is not so much an epidemic, as a crisis of awareness. After 75 years of blessed peace and increasing prosperity, we were suddenly faced with something that took many out of their comfort zone. They were suddenly confronted with the potential of unavoidable death on a large scale, amplified dramatically in the echo-chamber of a largely uncritical media. The reality, fortunately, was different this time. But how did we respond? With fortitude and common sense? Unfortunately not. We responded with perhaps the biggest own goal in our recent history. And when our over-reaction had been clear for several weeks, what did we do then? Did we change course in a reasoned and timely manner? No. We devoted several days to hounding someone who tried to look after his family, at a time when each day longer on this path costs billions in economic loss and directly increases the lockdown-related morbidity and death toll.
After this experience, I no longer believe that the institutions of our society are capable of ‘following the science’, and that fills me with foreboding. If science can be hijacked to fuel mass hysteria once, maybe it could easily enough happen again. How can we prevent this? What changes can be made to the interface between science and politics to facilitate proportionate decision-making? How should the evidence and the decision-making be reported to the public? Should there be constitutional mechanisms to stop the government abrogating our rights to personal risk assessment? It is in all our interests to consider these questions in depth. The Dominic Cummings story shows in a nutshell how important this has become.