Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.
I am no fan of the idea of news conferences held by Ministers flanked by scientific and medical advisers. The underlying spin that Ministers were simply following the science was constantly repeated.
Ministers hoped that the presence and the slide shows of the experts would buttress their case and turn government decisions and statements into underlying truths that no serious person could contest. It seemed to me to misrepresent the different roles of official advisers and Ministers and was likely to weaken both.
There were obvious flaws in this constitutional experiment. The first is the assumption that there is such a thing as “the science”. In fast moving areas like the epidemiology and treatment of a new disease there is no settled scientific view. There should rather be an intense period of collaborative and competitive research and trials to understand the disease better and to find out which treatments and vaccines work.
The Government’s senior advisers are mainly interpreters and summarisers of the better science and medicine going on. To do their job well they need to be global in vision and willing to look at evidence and breakthroughs from established and challenger institutions, companies and individuals wherever they arise.
The second is the assumption that the only policy consideration is controlling the virus. In practice within government some Ministers needed to make the case to keep more of the economy open. They should worry about mental health problems if too many people lost their jobs, show concern for the food and power supply problems if too many were stopped from working and ask how much damage a widespread and long lasting lockdown would inflict.
The Prime Minister and the whole Cabinet needed to balance the competing objectives and come to a balanced view. Within the Health Department itself the Secretary of State needed not just to find out what would have maximum impact on the virus, but also ask what actions were feasible given the need to continue to battle against cancer, heart attacks and other killers at the same time.
The third was to blur the usual distinction that advisers give their advice in private and in public let Ministers speak for the government, never undermining them. In return for anonymity and the confidentiality of their advice they are defended by Ministers should people wish to draw them into the political battles.
Once an adviser finds a public voice, they may try to preserve some distinction between facts and opinion or between analysis and policy decision, but the difference easily gets washed away. It often became clear that the scientists and medics on stage were going to take a cautious even pessimistic view and were therefore advocates of greater and longer restrictions.
The media soon made a story line out of alleged or actual differences between cautious medical advisers and generalist decision taking Ministers who needed to keep the lights on, and the nation fed, and deal with the part of the public who were not persuaded by the case for more restrictions. Governments cannot have independent advisers speaking against it in public. When advisers and Ministers no longer agree one side needs to resign or give in.
The fourth was to reveal the splits between the advisers who had made it to the government conference table and the advisers outside government who often disagreed or who felt ignored. The Government itself harnessed the private sector to find vaccines, which required study of the nature and presence of the virus. It was less willing to go outside for work on other ways of combatting the virus or on treatments. There was slower progress on expanding the range of available medicines to lessen the impact and shorten the duration of the illness, and less intense work on air purifying and cleansing in health locations despite the evidence of cross infections.
As a result of this experiment some of the government advisers became exposed to the kind of media treatment politicians live with but officials usually escape. The private lives and compliance of top officials with the advice and regulations became a matter of great interest to the media, particularly when some misbehaved in colourful ways.
Government Ministers found that they are still accountable for the wide range of decisions taken, however much they might like to think they were grounded in science. They did need to understand the social and economic consequences and the impact on other health conditions of their preoccupation in finding ways to limit the spread of the virus.
The latest arguments over Omicron are in part arguments over how we are governed. In recent days there has been some cross-party examination of the data. Why MPs ask are we told cases are doubling every other day when total cases are doing no such thing. The advisers explain they are citing Omicron. The MPs think it is the total cases that matters when it comes to hospital capacity and serious illness rates.
Some of the MPs who have been keenest to “follow the science” and to contract out the decisions on lockdown are now actively engaging with the data and realising there is considerable uncertainty. In the early days of this new mutant the scientists honestly tell us they do not know just how far and fast it will spread or how serious an illness it will give most people. Before we find out these crucial things it is a judgement over what to do that cannot be dictated by the science.
I hope we soon go back to the simple approach that advisers advise and Ministers decide. Ministers can command the best advice at home and abroad. They can seek a second opinion if the first does not make sense. They do need to cross examine the advice and make sure it is based on good evidence and great expertise.
The UK is fortunate to have many talented medics and scientists. Ministers should listen and learn. It is best if Ministers then decide and explain. If Ministers cannot explain in straightforward terms why the science has led them to a certain course of action they need to go away, think again and get better at carrying opinion.
It is Ministers jobs to decide and explain. It is scientists jobs on the official payroll to provide great explanations and analysis and when forecasting to be as accurate as possible. Some very pessimistic forecasts look like attempts to play politics to those of a different view, rather than well judged efforts to describe a fast changing and awkward future.