Plenty of noise is being made this morning about the the joint Commons Health, Science and Technology Select Committee’s new report on the government’s handling of the pandemic. Inevitably, some have immediately jumped at the chance to blame Number 10 and the Health Department for failing to contain the spread and naively adopting a herd immunity strategy despite the risks. Obviously, that strategy was wrong: the fact the government later pretended not to have taken that approach would suggest they think so too.
What caught Guido’s eye in the report, however, was how critical it is of the scientific advice that dictated the government’s response in the first place:
“In the first three months the strategy reflected official scientific advice to the Government which was accepted and implemented. When the Government moved from the ‘contain’ stage to the ‘delay’ stage, that approach involved trying to manage the spread of covid through the population rather than to stop it spreading altogether […] The fact that the UK approach reflected a consensus between official scientific advisers and the Government indicates a degree of groupthink that was present at the time which meant we were not as open to approaches being taken elsewhere as we should have been.”
In other words, the government was wrong to consistently accept the scientific advice, and should have challenged SAGE’s input more often. Quite the departure from the Twitterati’s squawks that the government should always and only “follow the science”…
The report later adds:
“We accept that it is difficult to challenge a widely held scientific consensus. But accountability in a democracy depends on elected decision-makers taking advice, but examining, questioning and challenging it before making their own decisions.”
The government made lots of mistakes last year, yet it’s clear they were also being guided by ill-informed voices. Of course, that’s bound to happen in the chaos of a pandemic; it was a novel virus and no one really had all the right answers. Hindsight makes this look a lot easier. Still, this hardly vindicates Whitty, Vallance, and SAGE – and going forward, as the report says, there should be an effort to “include more representation and a wider range of disciplines” when making these decisions…