Are the government starting to turn on scientific advice?
By Joe Harker
Working out how each country has done in response to the coronavirus is a tricky business.
Differences in situations and demographics make it hard to measure exactly how much government policy affects the spread of Covid-19.
Finding the true figures behind confirmed cases and deaths for the purposes of a fair comparison is hard as they can be counted differently. Not all countries are affected equally and some nations are more vulnerable than others.
However, the figures indicate that the UK has had one of the worst pandemics in the world.
We would appear to have the fourth highest total of confirmed cases after the far more populous US, Russia and Brazil, while we have the second highest death toll behind the US.
Late to impose a lockdown and slow to get coronavirus testing off the ground, the UK government has repeatedly insisted their response to the pandemic is guided by the scientific advice they receive, but are they setting the experts up to take the blame?
Thérèse Coffey, the secretary of state for work and pensions, said if there had been faults with the government's response to the coronavirus then the blame should go to the scientists who advised them.
She admitted it was possible that the government had made "wrong" decisions but insisted ministers had followed the advice given to them by experts, thus meaning any wrong decisions were rooted in bad advice.
Coffey said: "If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong. I'm not surprised if people will then think we then made a wrong decision.
"I think that is what the British public would accept. You can only make judgments and decisions based on the information and advice that you have at the time."
The government has ensured ministers at daily press briefings on the pandemic have been flanked by scientific experts to provide legitimacy to their decisions. They have always said they "followed the science" on their response to the pandemic.
The Counter Claim:
To follow the science would be to misunderstand what scientific advice is. To say "the science" is to treat it as though there is a singular and definitive scientific opinion on every subject. There isn't.
The government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has been criticised for not containing a wide enough range of scientific experts. Lacking experts in some areas will mean certain perspectives are not considered until it is too late.
Ask a range of scientists who are experts in their specific fields for the proper solution to a problem and you will get a range of responses provided through the lens of each person's field of expertise.
Prime minister Boris Johnson has been urged to publish the scientific advice provided to the government by SAGE so the public can see exactly what the experts were recommending and how it impacted the key decisions the government has made.
There are concerns that the government is gearing up to foist any blame for their poor decisions during the pandemic onto the scientists, essentially mucking up the response to the point that thousands more died that might have and washing their hands of any responsibility.
The government appears to be aware that there is going to be a significant backlash against the way they responded to the coronavirus and scientists are worried ministers will deflect all the blame onto them.
Scientists have repeatedly told ministers to stop attempting to pass the buck onto them, but without knowing how the government's decisions were supposedly guided by the science it is hard to say exactly who is responsible for what.
Ministers need to take responsibility for their decisions but the scientists advising the government should be held to account for the advice they are giving.
Neither group should be attempting to shove all of the blame and responsibility onto the other while the truth is still obscured.
If we really want to know how the government made their decisions then the scientific advice from SAGE needs to be published.
Knowing who provided the advice, what they recommended and what impact it had on government decision making will help clear up how the UK responded to the coronavirus.
Ministers cannot hide behind scientists and claim they only did as they were told to by the experts until we know exactly what they were told to do and how they implemented that advice.
Be very wary of attempts to blame the UK's coronavirus dead on the scientific community when the government has been so slow to respond to Covid-19 despite having ample warning of the pandemic.