Does the Government have a policy for coronavirus? Indeed it does. In fact, it has several. One for each month of the year, all mutually inconsistent and none of them properly thought through. Sometimes, governments have to change tack. It shows that they are attending closely to a changing situation. But this crisis has exposed something different and more disturbing: a dysfunctional Government with a deep-seated incoherence at the heart of its decision-making processes.
The root of the problem is the uncomfortable relationship between the Government and its scientific advisers. The Government has repeatedly claimed to be ‘guided by the science’. This has in practice been a shameless attempt to evade responsibility by passing the buck to scientists for what are ultimately political, and not scientific, decisions. Scientists can advise what measures are likely to reduce infections and deaths. Only politicians can decide whether those measures make sense in economic and social terms too.
Sage, the committee of scientists advising the Government, has been very clear about this, as the minutes of its meetings show. They are not willing to become the Government’s human shield, or the fall-guys for its policy misjudgments.
Ministers press them for the kind of unequivocal answers that will protect them from criticism. Scientists cover themselves by giving equivocal answers, which reflect the uncertainty of the science. The Government responds by avoiding any decision for which it would have to take political responsibility, until the pressure of events becomes irresistible, when it lurches off in a new direction.
Plan A was published on March 3. It concentrated on ensuring the provision of medical and other essential services. It relied on advice and guidance to the public, not coercion. The Government stood out against the authoritarian and indiscriminate measures which were being applied in Italy, and later in other European countries.
Plan B was an abrupt U-turn. On March 18, the Government announced the closure of schools. On March 20, pubs, cafes and restaurants were added. Finally, it announced the full lockdown on the evening of March 23.
That was a last-minute decision made that afternoon, for which the Government had made no preparations at all. It had not included a lockdown power in the Coronavirus Bill which was then going through Parliament.
Instead, it was forced to make legally questionable use of public health legislation designed to control the movements of infected people, not healthy ones. Even then, it took another three days to prepare the regulations, and meanwhile pretended that they were in force when they were not.
Judging by its minutes, Sage was unenthusiastic about closing down the hospitality industry, forbidding large gatherings or closing schools. From an early stage, it had pointed out that the real threat was to people over 70 and those with serious underlying medical conditions. Since March 5 they had been advising the Government to ‘cocoon’ those people, and others who either had the disease or lived in the same household.
Sage appears to have envisaged guidance rather than compulsion. ‘Citizens’, the behavioural scientists advised, ‘should be treated as rational actors, capable of taking decisions for themselves and managing personal risk.’ If this advice had been followed, it would have left almost all the economically active members of the population free to earn their livings and sustain the economy.
Indiscriminate lockdown was a panic response to the now-notorious statistical model produced on March 16 by Professor Neil Ferguson’s team at Imperial College. Panic responses leave little room for reflection. No serious consideration appears to have been given to the potentially catastrophic side effects. In fact, the Imperial team did identify the main problem about a lockdown. In an earlier report to Sage, they had pointed out that once a disease had taken hold in a population, ‘measures which are too effective merely push all transmission to the period after they are lifted, giving a delay but no substantial reduction in either peak incidence or overall attack rate’.
They repeated this view when they recommended a lockdown on March 16 and said that to be effective, it would need to be maintained until a vaccine was available, ‘potentially 18 months or more’. They pointed out that this would involve ‘enormous’ social and economic costs which might themselves have a significant impact on health and wellbeing.
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