One of the most repeated phrases during the Coronavirus crisis has been that the Government is being “led by the science” in everything it does.
While this all sounds very sensible, such claims have their limits. As Paul Goodman wrote for ConservativeHome in early March, “scientists advise but Ministers decide” and the “Chief Medical Officer is not the Prime Minister.”
These words are particularly pertinent this week as it appears that Boris Johnson has, indeed, bypassed Professor Chris Whitty in relaxing lockdown.
Anyone who’s been watching the proceedings closely will know that easing restrictions has always been a highly conditional exercise, contingent upon a five-level system.
Level 5 is the worst, during which lockdown is recommended, followed by Level 4, whereby transmission is “high or rising exponentially”, when social distancing should be continued, and Level 3 describes the virus being “in general circulation”, meaning the Government can opt for the “[G]radual relaxation of restrictions”.
All four chief medical officers of the UK, including Whitty, have said that the alert level stands at 4, and reportedly “vetoed” the wish for it to be lowered. But the Government has pressed on with school reopenings and allowing groups of up to six people to meet – by all indications, acting as though the UK is in Level 3.
This is all the more surprising as Johnson has previously appeared committed to the alert system. On May 10, he said of reopening outdoor markets and primary schools that if “the alert level won’t allow it, we will simply wait and go on until we have got it right.”
The next day, the Government also released guidance on what it would take to ease restrictions, saying that these “must be warranted by the current alert level.”
To a certain extent, there seems to be some wishful thinking on the Government’s part. On May 27, the Prime Minister told Parliament’s Liaison Committee, “we’re coming down the Covid alert system from Level 4 to Level 3 tomorrow, we hope”, and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, has said that we are “transitioning from level 4 to level 3”. “Transitioning” seems to be the line being used to justify the easing of lockdown.
It certainly does not seem to be “led by the science”, though. Not only have chief medical officers rejected the idea that we’re out of Level 4, but SAGE has been equally critical. One member Professor John Edmunds, has said that the easing carries “some risk”, and another, Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar, has claimed that Covid-19 is “spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England.”
Furthermore, there has been confusion over the Government’s new Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), which apparently informed Whitty’s decision to keep us at Level 4. Johnson said in May that the centre should decide the alert level, yet there have been doubts as to whether it’s even operational. On Monday evening, Matt Hancock said “it’s being formulated at the moment, it’s being pulled together”, which will lead to more questions as to how the system works.
While the Government has placed scientists at the forefront of its approach since day one of the crisis, the fact we have sped through Level 4 seems to signal a shift into new territory. For one, it could simply be that the Government feels confident that the pandemic is on its way out – even if it is not directly saying so, lest MPs be quoted back. Maybe some MPs are doubtful of an “inevitable” second wave, believing that the virus has a natural end.
But more than that, it may indicate that the Government is being increasingly “led by the Treasury”. And who’s to say that’s bad? After all, at some point the balance tips over in the Coronavirus war, as to when economic damage – and the health outcomes it entails – override the danger of the disease.
Whatever the reality behind the decision, the idea we are being “led by the science” can no longer be counted upon.