ConservativeHome makes one prediction only about the inevitable Coronavirus inquiry. It will recommend that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies becomes the Advisory Group for Emergencies – widening its membership to include, for example, economists. SAGE will become AGE – in effect, if not formally.
The inquiry will advise that AGE’s minutes are made public. Ditto its recommendations. Ditto its membership. This is at once both absolutely right and counter-productive, because such changes will have classic law-of-unintended-consequences results.
One is that any minutes published, like Cabinet minutes, will tell the reader nothing much at all. Another is that any recommendations will be so broadly couched as to be almost meaningless – to watch the backs of those who offer them.
Another is that some of the present advisers, and others, will decide that the game’s not worth the candle. It’s not hard to understand why. Once the media has the names, it can dig a bit, find out which companies those on the committee advise, and for what remuneration, and tease out real and apparent conflicts of interest.
Scientists, like business people, aren’t used to public scrutiny in the way that politicians are. They can’t suddenly be sacked by the voters, in the way that Ministers effectively can, and so have less incentive to watch their words. Consider, for example, Neil Ferguson of Imperial College offering a rough figure of up to 20,000 virus-related deaths.
No Minister would have chanced his statistical arm in that way. But if in one way the Government’s scientific advisers are unlike politicians, in another respect they are like them. They too inhabit their own eco-system. There is a Science Village, just as there is a Westminster Village (also lived in by journalists, civil servants, lobbyists etc).
The inhabitants of the Science Village will know which members moved to which universities when; who beat who to get whatever grant; whose forecasts turned out to be wide of the mark; who peer-reviewed whom; who’s in bed with which drugs company (and is paid roughly how much), who ran off with whose spouse, and so on.
Sunlight may be the best disinfectant but few of the scientists concerned will want to bask in it. Some will quietly chuck it all in. Those who stay will proceed sedulously. Whether the quality of the advice becomes better, worse or much the same will remain to be seen. This brings us to some of AGE’s would-be new members – the economists.
Imagine for a moment that Dominic Raab, or Matt Hancock, or Boris Johnson for that matter, appeared at one of those daily briefings flanked by someone called the Chief Economic Adviser (the Treasury has one) or the Chief Statistical Officer (there is a National Statistician).
Then suppose that any or all of these said that the Government will be “guided by the economics” or “guided at all stages by the economic evidence”. Everyone would scratch their heads – not least economists, who understand that there is no such thing as “the economics”, only a mass of different economic views.
As this site wrote as early as March 11, when the lockdown wasn’t even a gleam in the Prime Minister’s eye, there is no such thing as “the science” either, at least in this case. Only different scientific views. These will have been represented in SAGE as well as elsewhere before it has come to its conclusions.
So why have Ministers suggested otherwise? Because “the science” gives them cover in a way that “the economics” would not. “Science” has a talismanic power with the public. It somehow conjures up a collage of Einstein’s dreamy eyes, optical telescopes, Stephen Hawking’s voice, pulsating microbes and squiggly equations.
In short, images of objectivity, dispassion and omnipotence. But the decision to ease a lockdown, say, because a model predicts an outcome is not a scientific one. It can only be a political decision, made by lay people that we elect, not by scientists that we don’t – as Graham Brady also points out this morning.
In any event, infallibility is out of the question. This is because any such model will depend on the behaviour of human beings, and this is variable. (Consider the way in which school attendance has come in lower than Ministers expected.) And scientists will disagree anyway, as we have seen.
The future of SAGE, the fallacy of “the science”, the condition of the lockdown: all this is relevant as Boris Johnson prepares to return to work tomorrow. Some claim that Ministers are now the prisoners of their scientific advisers: that the former couldn’t ease the shutdown after next week’s Bank Holiday if the latter didn’t consent, for example.
We believe that this is true only up to a point. No politicians of any party will ultimately allow advisers of any kind to screw up their electoral prospects. And as we have seen part of the point of praying in aid “the science” is precisely to protect these.
Which is why we expect the Prime Minister to experiment with a suck-it-and-see easing of the lockdown in roughly mid-May. He will hope to relax it enough to give the economy some relief; not so much as to unleash a second wave that would drown the NHS; enough to keep ahead of public opinion as the shutdown frays at the edges.
And not so much as to leave the Government shipwrecked with a punctured economy, a failing NHS, further lockdown attempts that don’t work and plummetting poll ratings. The scientific advisers will find some form of squaring such a lift with the five tests. (Remember them?) Though there are some ominous rumblings today.
To finish where we started, the eventual inquiry will see politicians blame policy errors on the scientists, saying that “we followed advice at all times”; and the scientists blame them on the politicians, saying that “we only ever offered options: advisers advise and Ministers decide”.
That overhaul of the whole advice system will follow. Some of the criticism will be fair enough; some will be the wisdom of hindsight; some will be clever dickety. That’s how it goes. P.S: the self-wounding hysterics about Dominic Cummings from embittered Remainiac losers will have no impact on anything whatsoever.