Why we must always question ‘The Science’

Tim Knox on the pernicious role of the ‘scientific blob’ in the UK’s response to Covid-19.

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Topics Covid-19 Politics Science & Tech UK

At every stage of the Covid-19 crisis, ministers have insisted that they are following ‘The Science’. And yet the result has been a catastrophe. Tim Knox is the former director of the Centre for Policy Studies. He recently co-authored a report for Civitas on the UK’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which highlights the dangerous role played by ‘the blob’ – a narrow coterie of scientific advisers. spiked caught up with him to find out more.

spiked: What are the key failings in the UK’s response to Covid-19 that you identify in your report?

Tim Knox: The first is the death rate. The ways of measuring death rates are all fairly rough-and-ready, but the best figure to look at is the death rate per head of population. On that count, other than Belgium, the UK has the worst rate in the world – far worse than the United States.

Then there are the economic costs of the virus and our response to it. The OECD has recently put out a report saying that the UK is the worst member state in terms of the possible costs. This was before the government’s announcements about recovery spending, which will put up the costs even more.

The third is something revealed in a study by the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. They found that we were one of the worst-prepared countries in the world for leaving lockdown. Only three countries scored worse – Algeria, Iran and Nicaragua. That means we measured worse than many poorly run countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Papua New Guinea.

spiked: How great is the scale of these failings and how large do you anticipate their costs to be?

Knox: The death rates are very confusing. It is easy to forget, when reading or watching mainstream coverage, that the great majority of deaths have been people aged over 75. Interestingly, at the moment in the UK, our overall death rate (for all causes – not just coronavirus) is actually lower than that which would be expected at this time. This can only mean one thing: a large number of those who died during the peak of the crisis actually just happened to accelerate their deaths by a few weeks. It is tragic, but not the same as dying many years early. Since most deaths from coronavirus were among the elderly, we should expect the overall death rate to continue to fall.

In terms of the economy, the costs are dependent on so many ‘known unknowns,’ and so many ‘unknown unknowns’. But it is very clear there is going to be a huge financial cost. There is no magic money tree. We are extraordinarily lucky that we are able to borrow at the rates we are. If we had not brought our overall economic situation into control over the last 10 years, I dread to think what position we would be in now. It would be substantially worse than that which Greece faced during the financial crisis.

I think the big danger is inflation, which I feel is greatly underestimated. One very simple reason inflation is likely to rise is that there is a huge amount of money being printed, and at the same time the number of products and services in circulation has fallen dramatically. Basic economics means that an increase in the money supply alongside a lower volume of goods and services being exchanged will lead to significant inflationary pressures.

spiked: Could we have avoided these economic consequences if we had responded differently to the virus?

Knox: At the moment, all we can do is pose questions which any future inquiry into the handling of the virus should look at. The crucial strand of thinking which inquires will have to investigate is why the UK performed so poorly compared to other countries. The two most obvious countries to compare the UK to would be Sweden and Germany. They each had very different responses. But Sweden has done substantially better than us in economic terms – their economy seems to be contracting at a rate of around 5 to 6 per cent, less than expected, rather than the 20 per cent we are experiencing. And Germany had a rapid, extreme lockdown, but came out of it pretty quickly.

There are many questions to be asked about why we have done so badly. Some of them are probably outside government control. For example, the fact that London is a transit point for international travel may have played a role in the virus’s spread in the UK. There are also demographic questions, such as those about care homes – so many workers in care homes are agency workers who work in multiple establishments meaning they risked moving the virus around. This issue is particularly acute in the UK, partly because care homes have been underfunded. These questions may seem very obscure but, in time, we will be able to find answers to them.

spiked: What is the ‘blob’, and how is it responsible in part for the failings we have seen?

Knox: ‘The blob’ refers to a group of scientific advisers who, for historic reasons, have had a disproportionate impact on government policy, including during the pandemic. SAGE and Public Health England are right at the centre of that. SAGE was set up in the immediate aftermath of the Foot and Mouth crisis, and always wants to fight the last war, so to speak. Foot and Mouth is a relatively simple disease and people knew what it was at the time. But in many ways our response to it may have been hugely overreactive. There are plenty of academic papers suggesting this, and Neil Ferguson appears to have been at the heart of that overestimation of the problem. That was the issue then.

What is a more complicated problem now, with our response to coronavirus, is the question of whether this scientific blob did its job, and whether ministers challenged its recommendations empirically enough. The position of SAGE changes from crisis to crisis but it has been dominated by one particular group of epidemiologists. I am not imputing any bad motives there – it is just how it is. It is a completely different group to the group from Oxford University, who produced totally different models and forecasts. But this group had all the responsibility at the heart of the government for forecasting. A new government came along, and did something normal – it realised it could hide behind scientific advice and outsource all the decisions – and therefore the blame when things went wrong – to SAGE. This was where the awful mantra of ‘following the science’ came from. That phrase is the most aggravating in the world. Any scientist will tell you there is no such thing as ‘The Science’. The whole point of science is that you are constantly challenging, questioning and examining the existing consensus. Therefore, science always changes – especially when confronted with something as complicated as Covid-19.

The government was, in fact, following the advice of one particular branch of the scientific community. There are many scientific groups and interpretations they could have drawn upon. In Germany, the equivalent of SAGE took a much broader approach. Not only did it have a greater range of types of scientists on it, but it also included historians, psychologists and crowd-behaviour experts. They brought in everyone who could make a contribution. But in the UK, the view given was from one particular faction of one particular subset of scientists who had actually already been at the heart of government for 20 years. This ran against the advice of some public-health officials who felt no one group should stay in place for so long. But because they were there for long enough, the problem started to perpetuate itself. They developed a groupthink mentality which they were able to reproduce by appointing their friends to the group and shutting out people who were difficult or hostile to their ideas. They naturally became more and more arrogant.

spiked: Why do you think the government was so inclined to listen to that particular part of the scientific community? And will they turn on them when it comes to apportioning blame for the failings?

Knox: The scientific blob was well established when the new government came in. As a result, they took it seriously and I think they were incredibly concerned when they saw Ferguson’s predictions – understandably, considering what he was warning about. Things felt like they were coming close to breaking point. There was a hospital in London which very suddenly appeared to be being overwhelmed. The government concluded they had no choice but to press the button, as it were.

There is potentially another aspect, too. If we cast our minds back to the Brexit campaign and Michael Gove being ridiculed for saying people were sick of experts, you start to wonder whether the government has been anxious to avoid being accused of a similar mentality to Gove’s. They wanted to be seen to be trusting in and following the advice of the experts, and so decided to try and use ‘The Science’ as a shield.

Dominic Cummings is known to like so-called war-gaming. He appears to be playing another war game now, in that the government appears to be trying to put some blame on care homes. It is implicitly accusing care homes of failing to deal with the pandemic. It has probably calculated that it will suffer in the short term in terms of public reaction, but that when it eventually comes to a public inquiry and to the question of who is actually to blame, they will have been able to deflect attention away from themselves. At that point, they will blame Public Health England for the policy of sending elderly people from hospitals into care homes, which is suspected to have seriously increased the spread of the virus in those homes. This is all expectation management, and is intended to make the government look much better in the future than it does now.

spiked: What recommendations would you make for future decision-making if we are to face a repeat of this pandemic or a second wave of coronavirus? What do you make of the planned recovery the government has started to announce?

Knox: The first notable thing is that there certainly will be a next time. We have been extraordinarily lucky not to face a major pandemic for a long time. Plagues and pandemics are normal and most of them kill a third of the population. That is not to underplay the seriousness of coronavirus, but to acknowledge that we are likely to face big problems in the future. The most important thing is to work out how to get a proper balance between wide-ranging, well-informed science, and the political culture. Cummings is right that the great majority of UK politicians are Oxbridge PPE graduates – I think there are only two cabinet members who have science qualifications, and they are not in positions to change policy. It is essential that SAGE and COBRA have proper, clear scientific input. But it is also very important that that input is not treated as the only source of information. There are structural problems in that interface between science and government that need to be solved.

Also, it needs to be much more widely recognised that the private sector has played a key role in getting us through the crisis. If supermarkets had closed like schools did, there would have been civil war or we would all be dead. But they kept going and made sure we had enough food, despite the hoarding. The few things which we have done really well have been non-state action. The private sector will obviously have a big role in future pandemics. If we just rely on the state, we will run into serious fiscal issues.

The state did do some things well, but they were things we had prepared for. The Nightingale hospitals – though ultimately barely used – were put up in impressively short time, but that was possible because the army had trained to put up hospitals quickly in case of nuclear war. That is a lesson: prepare. Overall, we did not prepare to any great extent, and what preparation was done was not put into practice or put to good use.

People are talking a lot about inquiries. One other thing to remember is that the government will set up the body that undertakes the inevitable inquiry. It will be very careful about how it is organised and how its findings are published. That means we have to make sure that we scrutinise everything carefully – otherwise those who made the mistakes may be able to get away with it.

Tim Knox was talking to Paddy Hannam.

Picture by: Getty.

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