Why scientists must accept blame for virus deaths – Bill Carmichael

IF scientists and politicians went head to head in a public poll for popularity it would be no contest – the scientists would win hands down.

The role of scientists in the Covid response is coming under scrutiny.

Scientists are seen as impartial and dispassionate seekers after the truth, while politicians are portrayed either as chancers lining their own pockets or evil monsters happy to see people suffer and die.

In short we trust scientists in a way we would never trust politicians. As a result “science”, however you define it, is playing a growing role in the formation of public policy.

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Fair enough, you might think, we need all the expertise we can get, but it quickly gets a bit more complicated. For a start not all scientists agree with one another, and frequently they will recommend opposing solutions for the same problem.

File photo dated 03/03/20 showing (left to right) Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance during a press conference at Downing Street, London, on the government's coronavirus action plan.

Ah, in that case, we are told, we should follow the scientific “consensus”. This is precisely what we have done with regard to global warming, where we have artificially jacked up energy prices to cut carbon emissions – a move that will directly lead to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths among the elderly and poor this coming winter, and which has clobbered heavy industry.

The current Government also followed the scientific consensus in its response to the Covid pandemic – specifically from a group of experts known as the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, more commonly known by the reassuring title Sage.

Boris Johnson and other Ministers repeatedly told us they were “following the science”. In effect they were ducking behind the shield of “science” because they could say it was not really their fault if things go wrong. This is an attempt to “depoliticise” policy decisions and to take the sting out of what are hugely controversial choices.

But it turns out, if a report released this week from a cross-party group of MPs is to be believed, that the scientists got it badly wrong with relation to Covid. Indeed the report charges Sage with a series of blunders and U-turns that probably cost many thousands of lives and led to what the MPs call “one of the most important health failures the UK has ever experienced”.

File photo dated 23/03/21 of Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, who has said acting sooner and harder is the best way to deal with the spread of a future variant of Covid-19.

The report criticises politicians, not for ignoring scientific advice, but for following it blindly and not questioning the underlying assumptions of the science more vigorously. The much lorded scientific consensus turns out to be little more than what the report calls “groupthink” that severely hampered our response to the disease.

For example, in the early months of the pandemic, the Government decided to try to manage the spread of Covid through the population rather than try to stop it – the so-called herd immunity by infection strategy.

Johnson was heavily criticised for “letting Covid rip” and not ordering an early lockdown, leading to a spike of infections and deaths, but he was acting on the advice of Sage, and when the scientists changed their minds, spooked by forecasts of half a million deaths, the Prime Minister ordered a lockdown in March 2020.

The lack of testing in the early months of the pandemic, again on the advice of Sage, and the discharge of people from hospitals to care homes is also criticised in the report.

Did Government scientific advice let down the NHS and country over Covid?

There are some successes highlighted, most notably the development and roll-out of the vaccine, which is described as one of the most effective initiatives in history that will help save millions of lives across the world.

And former Health Secretary Matt Hancock comes in for praise for his 100,000 tests a day target that galvanised the system.

But it is the failures that will receive the most attention because they are the ones we need to learn lessons from.

Saying the scientists got it wrong does not absolve politicians of responsibility. The Prime Minister and other Ministers are the people in charge and should be answerable when a full public enquiry into Covid takes place next year.

The point I am making is that although science can inform politics, it cannot replace it. Pure rationality does not exist in the real world.

Instead, what we have seen during the pandemic is well-meaning men and women doing their level best during an unprecedented crisis, and being forced to make important decisions without being in full possession of the facts, and sometimes getting it badly wrong.

And that is politics – not science.

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