Thu 28 October 2021

Hardeep Matharu explores how those at the heart of Government have quickly switched from deriding experts to loving them – and why this volteface may not be so benign.

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Refusing to name a single economist who backed Brexit during the EU Referendum campaign, Michael Gove became an unlikely poster boy for the post-truth era when he declared that it didn’t matter because “people in this country have had enough of experts”.  

It was an appeal to the heart and gut over the mind, a liberation from logic. Four years on – and with a deadly virus which cares not for the feelings of those it infects spreading around the world – experts seem to be back in favour. Or are they? 

For increasingly, concerns are being voiced that ‘the experts’ will be Boris Johnson’s scapegoats in this crisis, used to justify a deeply flawed approach which has put the UK on a trajectory to record the highest COVID-19 death rates in Europe – backing up, rather than refuting, Gove’s claim that we’d all had enough of them anyway. 

Every day, at every given opportunity, we are told by our nervous politicians – flanked on either side by expert advisors assuming the positions of bodyguards – that “we’ve followed the science”. It is repeated too often by too many of them not to amount to a carefully crafted ‘on-message’ comms strategy. With the mantra now so commonly and automatically heard, it has almost morphed into a perverse ‘we were just following orders’ victimhood as the Coronavirus continues to spread, in which elected officials are recasting themselves as slaves to scientific advisors, rather than ministers with whom the buck stops.

In a surprising response to a highly critical investigation by the Sunday Times at the weekend, the Government stated that “this is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice”. A few days later, the First Minister Dominic Raab – when asked whether he had read the 2016 Exercise Cygnus report into the UK’s latest rehearsal for a pandemic – told the Downing Street briefing that “it’s not something that immediately springs to mind”. Why would it? Life-altering pandemics are the domain of scientists, not politicians, clearly. 

When answers to difficult questions are eventually demanded, we should not forget where accountability lies: advisors advise, politicians decide.

Independence and Political Pressure

For Christina Boswell, Professor of Politics at Edinburgh University and the author of The Political Uses of Expert Knowledge, there is a “strong symbolic dimension” to the Government’s sudden enthusiasm for scientists, with different politicians “keen to use scientific claims as ammunition to support their positions”.

However, she believes that the Government isn’t simply using experts to back up its claims but as “an insurance policy”, and that “if things go wrong – and the curve gets too steep – it will be the scientific advice that is to blame”. If science is held responsible for poor political decisions – even though “science does not, and cannot, offer definitive answers to new and complex social problems – just propositions and hypotheses that are more or less robust” – their authority will be eroded, the academic fears.

In this, she is not alone. This week, Buzzfeed News reported that some of the Government’s scientific advisors are afraid that they will be used as “human shields” by politicians in a blame game at a future public inquiry.

While experts cannot provide definitive answers, they also do not operate within a vacuum. Indeed, in a situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic, they are providing advice within a highly politicised environment. While their independence should not be in question in theory, in reality the robustness of this may well be challenged by the styles and beliefs of the politicians they are working for, as well as how a particular political administration is run.

Clive Peedell, a consultant oncologist who co-founded the National Health Action Party, told me he thinks that creating ‘herd immunity’ as a response to the Coronavirus outbreak was the Government’s initial policy and that this “could have been an area where there was political pressure” influencing expert advisors, who may have been reluctant to tell politicians what they knew they wouldn’t want to hear.

“I think it was clearly policy and they’re rowing back because they made a mistake,” Peedell said. “My question is, did we have some expert advisors who failed to speak truth to power? That’s what I worry about – that there were concerns, that [politicians] were a bit worried about the economic consequences and [expert advisors] were told about those and they then failed to speak truth to power.”

With the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, revealing that key documents and minutes of meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) will not be made public until after the pandemic has eased, we will have to wait and see what advice was given and decisions taken. But, with concerns already being raised about scientists being in the frame to deflect blame from politicians, Gove’s declaration of war on experts is far from over. That a price will have to be paid somewhere over the UK’s scandalous handling of the Coronavirus crisis could be the ultimate revenge.   


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