Today
Wed 29 September 2021

Thomas Lewton looks at the debate around the lifting of Coronavirus restrictions and the media targeting of Independent SAGE

The UK Government’s decision to end lockdown on Monday rests on a simple fact: most elderly and vulnerable people are now vaccinated which is breaking the link between COVID-19 infection rates and death.

Throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, Boris Johnson has insisted that he is “following the science”. So why have more than a thousand scientists published a letter in the leading medical journal The Lancet in which they accuse the Government of “embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment”?

By pursuing mass infection among young people, the authors write, the Government is disregarding the health impacts of ‘Long COVID’. Meanwhile, the pressure cooker created by high infection rates inside a mostly vaccinated population risks the mutation of more dangerous COVID variants.

Clearly, there is more than one “science”.

Rarely do political decisions follow in a straightforward way from scientific facts. No more so than during a quickly-evolving pandemic that invades almost all aspects of our lives. 

Modellers’ forecasts rest on anticipating how humans behave, as much as on how the virus behaves. The damage inflicted by Long COVID is only just becoming apparent. Meanwhile, mental health and domestic violence pandemics are running in parallel to COVID. How you weigh different types of evidence, will lead you to different decisions – decisions that are rooted in values as much as they are in evidence.

Take Johnson’s liberal preference for guidance over laws despite the spiralling numbers of COVID cases. Wearing masks and social distancing are suggested, but not enforced; personal responsibility is chosen over government responsibility.

Indeed, being held accountable for decisions is not something this Government is known for. Back in May 2020, the UK’s former Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King asked whether the “following the science” mantra was a tactic used by ministers in order to shield themselves. The same month, King founded Independent SAGE, a group of scientists who would “shadow” the Government’s official emergency scientific advisory group SAGE

“When the Government says that it is following the advice of the scientific community, but that scientific advice is not known to the public, we, the public, cannot judge whether or not they are,” he told Science magazine at the time. This lack of trust was compounded when Dominic Cummings was found to have been quietly influencing SAGE’s “independent” advice.

In contrast, Indie-SAGE put transparency front and centre of its strategy, live streaming its meetings on YouTube and opening the messy and contentious process of scientific debate up to public scrutiny. Scientists with different experiences and knowledge bases will have different priorities. The aim is not to confuse, but rather to offer a realistic picture of science that isn’t a monolith with simple answers – nor a slogan to hide behind.

Often science is itself hidden behind the peer-review process, which strips away any hint of dispute and any possibility of human bias. Disembodied scientists deliver scientific results to the public as a pre-packaged consensus. This “view from nowhere” can be authoritative and persuasive – but apparently so are the arguments put forward by anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. 

Opening the inner workings of the scientific method – which at least aspires to principles of reason, integrity and scepticism – illustrates why one version of the “truth” holds more water than another.

Yet critics say that in recent weeks Indie-SAGE’s approach has been more akin to activism than impartial scientific advice. The Lancet letter – in part initiated by Indie-SAGE scientists – states that the Government should delay reopening as though it were a purely logical conclusion. Meanwhile, TV appearances and Twitter spats present scientists who are visibly frustrated by the Government’s decision to end lockdown. Indie-SAGE has always been daubed a “left-wing cabal” by the Daily Mail, but now their peers are wading in, accusing members of “aggressively lobbying democratic governments”

SAGE’s communication style could hardly be more different, with co-chairs Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty standing mutely behind Boris Johnson during public briefings. Editor of The Lancet Richard Horton says this “faux deference” is being used to “shore up [Johnson’s] decision making”. Have Vallance and Witty abdicated their duty as scientists and government advisers? Or does their apparent neutrality keep scientific advice in its rightful place – “on tap, but not top,” as Winston Churchill said.

Technocracies that venerate expert advice above all else are not without problems. Neither are governments that choose to discount the flow of scientific evidence without reason. It’s worth noting that both SAGE and Indie-SAGE highlight largely the same issues in their recent briefings on whether lockdown should be ended – but much of this did not seem to influence the final decision.

Evidence is cherry-picked to suit ministers’ ideals and values. This isn’t surprising and is, to some extent, necessary. But as the architects of their own research, scientists have a responsibility to make clear what the consequences will be.

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It’s right for scientists to point out that deprived communities are more likely to be exposed to COVID, further deepening inequalities. And to point out the likely health impacts on young people if case rates reach 100,000 per day as predicted. Just as it’s right to point out the mental health impacts of a prolonged lockdown.

Does wading into political discourse undermine their neutrality? Perhaps. But when politicians hide behind scientists, it’s no wonder that scientists become political.

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