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When “following the science” is not enough

May 3rd 2020

As governments continue to claim they’re following the science, Victoria Winckler, Director of the Bevan Foundation, says that science alone does not have the answers.

“Following the science” is one of the new mantras of the Coronavirus outbreak. It’s sounds extremely sensible – who would want to follow advice that either didn’t work or was proven to be harmful?

But “following the science” is never enough

The idea that science alone is what drives public policy is deeply misleading. It always has been, and it is now.  As we have seen all to clearly, “science” doesn’t necessarily have simple answers. There are often different and sometimes conflicting views, especially between different disciplines – indeed that process of debate and challenge is at the heart of “good science”.  You only have to look at the differing views on the benefits of wearing face masks to see that there isn’t a single or simple answer.

Sometimes science simply doesn’t have the answers, especially as this is a novel virus. It’s transmission wasn’t clear in the early days, there are still question marks about infection in children, and it’s not clear why people of BAME origin have been affected more than others.

So while one might hope that  any responsible government would not flout “the science”, slavishly following it could lead up a blind alley.

Science doesn’t tell you what to do

Science will tell governments about how a virus behaves, and it might also tell governments what can reduce the risks of infection. What it doesn’t do is turn those scientific insights into public health, social or economic policy.

Taking policy decisions involves deciding which of the possibly conflicting scientific views to follow and then translating them into action to change people’s behaviour.  Science told governments that keeping people 2m apart could prevent transmission of the virus. But it wasn’t science that told governments to close book shops and florists but to keep open hardware stores and tank factories.

And those decisions are political

Many if not most government decisions made during the outbreak are political. They involve weighing up risks against a deeply-held values and interests. The often-heard cry to “keep politics out” of the crisis is simply wrong – how it is handled is a huge political issue.

To take just one example, the neglect of residential care homes as places where infection could readily spread reflects the low political priority of the sector, both workers and clients. Similarly, the Westminster government’s apparent willingness to let house builders, DIY stores and food takeaways begin to reopen, is a political decision that reflects its priorities.

It’s the political nature of decisions that mean it’s OK- indeed desirable – to have different decisions in different parts of the UK. Each administration has its own values and priorities which should inform its decisions. It’s absolutely fine for the Welsh Government to decide to impose a 2 metre rule in workplaces because that reflects its political leanings (and is in fact in keeping with “the science”).

As the Coronavirus continues its rampage through Wales and the UK, do not be surprised to hear “following the science” less often. This is all the more likely if “the science” points to continued severe restrictions that harm the economy irreparably. If you doubt it, look back to the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak when the then government decided against vaccination, despite its scientifically-proven benefits, because it would have jeopardised exports to the rest of the EU. So much for “following the science”.  OK that was cows and this is people, but the principle is similar.

Now, as always, it’s policy and politics that matter.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation

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