Opinion: Coronavirus may yet reveal the limits of science’s impact on government decisions

Written by Steve O'Neil on 15 March 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

The government’s Covid-19 response has been driven by expert advice, in a way that isn’t always clear in public policy. Can it stay that way throughout the crisis?

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Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Witty have been thrown to the absolute forefront of public attention as the government deals with the spread of Covid-19. The “worst public health crisis in a generation’ as the prime minister put it.

I ran an event with Sir Patrick last year. Speaking about the role science plays in policy, he made the point that it is at its most important in emergencies. In saying this, the possibility of a pandemic, like the one we are living through today, must have been at the  forefront of his mind.  

Looking at the government’s action plan its clear science advice is central to the response. That should not come as a surprise. It is not only the chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer who play a central role. Our civil contingency architecture has science built into it - COBRA is advised by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) which Vallance chairs, for example.


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A few features of this case stand out.

First, clearly understanding a natural phenomena is central to the Covid-19 response. It is impossible to even begin to develop policy responses without an understanding of the virus and epidemiology. Crucially, it is also an area where high quality research is available.

Second, the goals seems crystal clear – avoid deaths and reduce disruption. There is no real question of what the government is trying to achieve, so it can follow the evidence towards those goals.

Third, this is not (yet) a political battlefield. If there is broad political agreement and no ideological bias, the incentive for ministers to follow the evidence will be stronger.

These three factors would seem typical in many emergencies. They are rarer with more day to day policy concerns where, for example, science advice may play second fiddle to political battles, or goals will be murkier. With all that said, we may be about to see political judgment becoming more important with Covid-19. Rory Stewart took to the media late last week urging the government to take more draconian measures. MPs are reported to be calling for clearer explanation of why the UK response seems to differ from that of other countries in Europe and World Health Organisation advice.

As these concerns grow in voice, we will see the limitations of the role science can play in driving government decisions. Even in a pandemic, there will be significant pressure from other sources. The government may start to act to reassure public concern or to reduce political pressure, rather than following the evidence as strictly as it seems to have done so far. As Stewart told Sky News: “It is a judgment call”.

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Steve O'Neil
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Steve O’Neil is a former civil servant and helped Imperial College London set up The Forum, its science policy engagement programme

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