The government has lost control

The masks u-turn shows it has surrendered its authority to ‘the science’.

Ben Pile

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They couldn’t have picked a worse way to signal that the economy is ‘back open for business’. This week, just days after high-street shops were allowed to reopen after months of closure, the UK government announced that, from 24 July, shoppers in England will be required to wear masks.

This is yet another sign of a nervous government, unable to follow its own path and published scientific guidance. Instead of showing political leadership, No10 has been spooked into knee-jerk, on-the-hoof policymaking by noise from scientific and non-scientific pundits alike, many of whom are far more interested in fearmongering to advance their own agendas than in protecting the public. The government has lost control.

Had this intervention been made at the beginning of the lockdown back in March, it might have been more plausible. But 123 days of lockdown will have passed when the new regulation comes into force. During that time, the fatality rate peaked in early April, at around 1,100 per day. Just 11 deaths were announced on the day of the government’s announcement on masks.

Advice published by the government on 11 May, and updated on 9 July (just four days before the face-masks announcement), claimed that ‘the evidence of the benefit of using a face covering to protect others is weak and the effect is likely to be small’. The issue of face masks has been a matter of scientific controversy from the start of the outbreak, marred by a lack of understanding of the virus’s mode of transmission.

Some experts argued that, of course, masks would help slow the infection rate – particularly if the virus is transmitted by airborne particles exhaled by infected people. But others pointed out that improper use of face masks can amplify risks, for instance by acting as a reservoir for virus particles that, when the mask is touched, can then be passed by unwashed hands to other surfaces. It seems that today’s mantra of ‘listen to the science’ is not as straightforward as it seems.

It is the precautionary principle that prevails in lieu of clear scientific evidence. In such circumstances, all that the alarmist and authoritarian need to do is demonstrate that some degree of plausibility exists in their claims. These claims, untested and unchallenged, are then elevated to the status of ‘the science’, whereas any contrary position becomes ‘anti-science’, and a callous gesture.

On that basis, the Royal Society published, on 26 June, a ‘rapid review of the science of the effectiveness of different face-mask types’ – a dense, 37-page tract which made the case for face masks. It was neither peer-reviewed nor opened to wide expert and public debate before being used to argue for policy.

On 7 July, the president of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, using the non-peer-reviewed research he had published to argue for compulsory face coverings. He said the refusal to wear a mask should be considered as ‘anti-social’ as drink-driving. Government must be ‘stronger and clearer about the messaging’ on face masks, he demanded. But the hasty assembling of research articles in support of a policy position is not science, and demanding that the government introduce new ‘taboos’ is naive and clumsy social engineering, not careful examination of the facts.

Scientific controversy in the 21st century, then, is settled by institutional weight and muscle, not by experiment. We should be suspicious of such a rapid transformation of the science, from controversy to compulsion in just a few short weeks, without the backing of experimental data, let alone debate. Such hasty ‘science’, produced only for the purposes of policymaking, is as likely to be wrong as it is right, and as likely to be dangerously misleading as it is to yield even negligible benefits.

Meanwhile, as scientists and scientific institutions jostle for position over policymaking, it is the individual’s capacity for making judgements about his or her own exposure to risk that is eliminated.

The requirement itself is a signal that what had just been declared safe – shopping – is in fact a deadly risk. Some claim that mandatory face masks will put people at ease, and encourage shoppers back on to the high street. But this is a bit like arguing that telling people to carry an umbrella will persuade them that it is not going to rain. The high street and our economic recovery will take another hit.

Overdependence on ‘the science’ – that is, on scientific institutions – also denies the government agency, leaving a vacuum where, during a crisis, there needs to be political leadership. In May, Ramakrishnan told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that ‘what [scientists] don’t want is, when faced with very uncertain facts that are rapidly emerging… to be blamed or found culpable in hindsight when more evidence comes along and the evidence changes’. The president of the Royal Society wants to have his cake and eat it: he wants the government to defer to institutional science, but not for science to be accountable for this influence.

This is convenient, given the fact that institutional science has disgraced itself during this pandemic. Wild prognostications of half a million deaths seem to have forced the government into a society-wide lockdown, rather than focusing its resources on the needy – many of whom were left to rot in care homes. Moreover, there have been many transparent cases of individuals using their scientific profiles politically – to embarrass the government and to settle grievances.

‘Face masks work!’, concludes a press release from the University of Oxford, in bold type, trumpeting its Royal Society-commissioned review. Well, maybe they do. But to what degree, and at what stages of a pandemic’s cycle, do they ‘work’? Could making them mandatory by law do more harm than good? And given new prognostications about a ‘second wave’, and the upcoming flu season, how long will they be mandatory for?

The government, weakened by its capitulations to breakfast TV anchors, politically motivated scientists and scientific institutions, may find itself unable to roll back policies which turn out to do more harm than good. Politicians and voters have been displaced by scientists and scientific institutions, keen to dominate the policymaking sphere, but unwilling to be held accountable for their mistakes.

Ben Pile blogs at Climate Resistance.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Jonathan Castro

17th July 2020 at 9:09 am

I refuse to wear an exemption badge because I don’t have what I consider to be a disability that would prevent me wearing a mask.
But I still won’t wear a mask.
Now is the time to rise up and show this nannying, irrational and increasingly psychopathic government that enough is enough: give us our lives back!

Ben Shirley

16th July 2020 at 11:28 pm

So far we have three friends, that I know of, in government. Sir Christopher Chope, Sir Desmond Swayne and Sir Edward Leigh have all voiced their disdain for Johnson’s authoritarian streak. I have written to all of them expressing my thanks. They deserve support and encouragement.

Diane Roche

16th July 2020 at 10:28 pm

Has the Coronavirus affected the rational thinking part of the brain? The public seem to have bypassed the fact that the order to wear masks ,or else! has come as the virus is waning. They seem oblivious or are they totally confused and defeated?. Why is there no challenge? No one bucking the trend.Where are the people willing to be sacked or arrested for their refusal to go along with this lunacy. Where is a brave business inviting customers,willing to apply no “rules” or “social distancing” measures. Customers come at their own risk and the fearful brainwashed others stay at home. I suspect the venue/shop would be packed. But no, it won’t happen as this Government has scared the wits out of people and continues regardless. A second wave is on it’s way ,obviously, and naturally it will be our fault for being reckless.
Ultimately it will be us.The people will have to end this themselves. If they still want to.

Jonathan Castro

17th July 2020 at 9:11 am

Me. Next Friday I will be doing a tour of the shops, without a mask.

James Knight

16th July 2020 at 9:03 pm

Masks should be left to common sense of individuals and businesses. However, it is anti-mask hysteria that is out of control. In France a bus driver was murdered after he asked passengers to wear masks. And that is not the only case. Even though I don’t believe masks should be mandatory, it is not a huge imposition by any stretch.

Bizarre that the negative reaction to masks seems stronger than the reaction to the lockdowns. Put people under house arrest that’s one thing, but ask them to wear a paper mask, that’s going too far. Like asking a man to share his wife or if you can shoot his dog. The reaction can be psychotic. The lockdown almost certainly did kill people as well as destroyed livelihoods of millions and created uncalculated social damage. But it was widely accepted if not always strictly observed. Maybe there is a Post Lockdown Derangement Syndrome. Partly it is loss of credibility and trust in science and the government.

John Pretty

16th July 2020 at 9:19 pm

You are missing the point.

And:
“In France a bus driver was murdered after he asked passengers to wear masks.”

Excellent.

James Knight

16th July 2020 at 8:26 pm

In the US Fauci practically admitted they cynically lied on masks at the start of the pandemic to stop people buying them. The cynicism was breath-taking. He seems like a guy who could piss down your leg while smiling in your face.

The UK flip-lop on masks was the same story. The masks saga has done for scientists what WMD did for Blair and “intelligence”. Nobody will believe them anymore.

Hasting Keith

16th July 2020 at 7:57 pm

The science issues that Ben Pile describes are some of the worst, and most serious, manifestations of a much wider problem – that of ‘advocacy science’. I work as a scientist in the private sector where the profit motive and need to keep clients happy introduces its own pressures, but many of the projects I have worked on have been for Government departments or agencies, where the same pressures to produce the ‘right’ answers are also apparent. The situation is no different in academia, where they have their own pressures of funding and the need to publish to maintain their position. Fortunately, I work in a position where I can confidently refuse to let my reports be sanitised by others, but sometimes the terms of reference that have been set before I even embark on a study have been designed to constrain any potentially undesirable outcomes. There are others in my profession that do not have the seniority or confidence to even challenge blatant attempts at manipulation. Of course, the scientific Institutes of which I am a member both have a code of conduct and disciplinary procedures to ensure that the highest professional standards are upheld, but in my 25 years plus as a member of these Institutes I cannot recall a single case of any member being investigated, let alone punished, as part of the disciplinary procedures. That is primarily because the codes of conduct concentrate on the deliberate manipulation or falsification of data, and not on the more subtle pressures to represent the findings to produce a ‘pleasing’ report. One of these Institutes has a membership of about 2,000 in the UK; the other a membership of about 100,000 globally, yet I am to believe that there have been no instances of malpractice. Yeah, as if. If there are any budding investigative journalists out there, it would be good to see a survey of Freedom of Information requests of the numerous scientific institutions to find out how many members they have, how many cases of malpractice they have investigated and how many scientists have been reprimanded. I would guess that the answers from most Institutions would be (a) a lot; (b) you could count them on one hand; and (c) none. Maybe the GMC has a slightly better record, at least they got Wakefield.

James Knight

16th July 2020 at 8:35 pm

It is worse that. They lied about masks to keep stocks for health care workers because they had not done their job in preparing for a pandemic in the first place. That is not “advocacy science”, it scientists lying for the “greater good”.

And lets not forget how the public were sneered at for buying up masks at the start of the pandemic and are now labelled as low IQ covidiots for not wearing masks. The time for masks was at the start of the pandemic, rather than locking down healthy people.

Vivian Darkbloom

16th July 2020 at 5:25 pm

I still can’t quite work out whether this is part of a deliberate plan or simple incompetence and f*ckwittery on the part of the government. Whatever it is we’re in serious trouble. If people think this is going to end soon they’re living in a fantasy world.

Hasting Keith

16th July 2020 at 8:14 pm

I’ve never worked directly for the Government, but have worked on many projects “for” the Government or its agencies. And I can happily confirm that it is not a deliberate plan, it is f*ckwittery. The Government and its civil service do not have the combined wit to exercise a deliberate plan.

Kathryn Barbara

16th July 2020 at 4:44 pm

Very good points being made here. Like many I read and listen to different opinions and find that we did very well in reducing infection rates and deaths when mask wearing was voluntary and not mandatory.
I would like to know what they consider to be the “successful outcomes” of this particular policy. Is it 10% reduction, or 50% reduction in what exactly?
The overall impression is of confusion and pandering to the media lobby.
Alternatives voices are just not getting out in our media. We are not being well served.
The “nudge” unit with its psychological operations seems to be in overdrive.

Jerry Owen

16th July 2020 at 4:16 pm

I myself am no shopper, but like most women my wife enjoys ‘window shopping’ with the obvious view to entering and buying something ( anything it seems sometimes.. but that’s the price you pay I guess ! )
I was more than happy to visit the shops when they started removing the direction arrows and it appeared to be getting less ‘hysterical’. However I will not set foot in any shopping centre or high street shops now masks are being made mandatory. I know I am not alone in this, the shops will take a serious hit, along with not operating at full capacity I fail to see how many can survive with such a cruel boot in the goolies.
I have decided to buy my petrol only from garages that you can pay at the pump rather than have to don a mask to go into the kiosk to pay, this will affect my local small garage 1/2 a mile down the road unfortunately. I will now travel four miles for my fuel but fill up to the brim to minimize my trips.
Food shopping is the obvious issue for me, I will try online shopping but I understand that it’s difficult to get a slot. I am absolutely going to loathe putting a mask as I have not done so to date.
The one question that barely gets asked is just exactly what factors decide that the ‘crisis’ is over? Just how few fatalities decide when it is safe to emerge?
There is no end game in sight as far as I can fathom, just a deepening black hole which most people seem to be happy falling into.
I suspect the next stage is people protesting against others for wearing the ‘wrong kind of mask’.

Gareth Hart

16th July 2020 at 4:53 pm

I suspect no mask requirement for deliveries will be an oversight Hancock and Co will remedy in time. Pro-maskers will not be happy until we are muzzled in our own home.

Hasting Keith

16th July 2020 at 8:08 pm

Totally agree with your main point. I have heard commentators saying that the imposition of face masks in shops will give people the confidence to head back into the shops, but it will have the opposite effect. I certainly won’t willingly go into a shop where I have to be muzzled, and many people have told me the same. Mrs Hastings will be heading out to the shops tomorrow to stock up, purely to avoid having to go there for the next few weeks after muzzle wearing becomes mandatory.

Ben Shirley

16th July 2020 at 11:21 pm

Don’t do your shopping online. It’s been pretty obvious from the outset that one goal aim of the lockdown has been a move to a cashless society, in which our expenditure can easily be traced. Go shopping, don’t put a mask on, just breeze in with confidence. If you’re questioned, say you have COPD, or asthma, or autism. Pay with cash, too. Set a good example for others to follow.

Also, give your support to small businesses like your local garage. If the staff turn out to be mask Nazis, sod ’em, but if their decent, liberal-minded people like you, they deserve your support.

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Warren Alexander

16th July 2020 at 3:31 pm

There is no evidence that any measure taken by this government has had any impact on infection rates or deaths.

nick hunt

16th July 2020 at 5:12 pm

But there is masses of evidence that UK government has inflicted massive suffering and death on British citiziens. Many countries around the world apply HCQ early and have prevented mass hospitalisation, death and pandemic, their success and protocols are easily available online, but all have been ignored by the UK’s ‘expert’ authorities. To verify, just check the posts on Covid19Crusher and Dr James Todaro on Twitter, the excellent ‘Swiss Policy Research’, or the vital database on all released research on HCQ at C19study.com. I see no way of accusing these independent sources of seeking financial or political benefit. By contrast, UK authorities have failed us most terribly and are covering up their catastrophic bias and mistakes

Reper1999 Reper1999

16th July 2020 at 2:57 pm

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Ian Logan

16th July 2020 at 2:17 pm

The Royal Society report was authored by a Sociologist and not a Medical Scientist. It has not been peer-reviewed, but then who is going to peer-review it – a bunch of Sociologists?

Mark Houghton

16th July 2020 at 3:38 pm

Ah sociologists with their inability to replicate their data. Why don’t they just study chicken entrails – it would be equally effective.

Ed Turnbull

16th July 2020 at 1:39 pm

With regard to our ‘government’ these lines from the US Declaration of Independence seem pertinent:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. “

Gareth Edward KING

16th July 2020 at 1:11 pm

The scientific ‘case’ for muzzle-wearing is irrelevant in the same way that if we always listened to the doctor we wouldn’t drink, smoke, take drugs, have wild sex (have sex per se) (with or without a condom), go to a rock concert etc., etc.. These things that we do are not irrelevant, they are certainly not ‘safe’, but for a lot of people they are very important aspects to life. What does wearing a surgical mask say? It says in no uncertain terms that we are pathetic individuals who need to be protected from risks, however, vague. For some people, the act of shopping is a vital part of life for them (I’m no shopper), if you tell them that now they have to wear a muzzle, does that give a signal that this activity is in any way ‘fun’ or ‘sociable’? Of course it doesn’t. I’m a cyclist, that in itself is a ‘risk’, but so what? The benefits accrued from cycling far outweigh the disadvantages. In Madrid, the few cyclists that there are tend to wear muzzles! What is the matter with them? I refuse to wear a rag on my face because I am not a victim and I don’t want other people to see me as such. I will put it on if it upsets people so much, say in a shop. But otherwise no. The Spanish government ran out of ideas a long time ago, its response to Covid-19 has always been erratic, to put it mildly. In early March there were Women’s Day demos the length and breadth of the country, so what? They may or may not be part of life, and if you wish to attend one, that’s your democratic imperative. It was a couple of days later that the country shut down, schools closed (they barely opened in June) and we were in for an aggressive ‘confinement’ till June 21st. Now, there are cases declared especially in the NE; in one region: Lérida, the clock’s been put back effectively to the dark days of April-it’s just short of total house arrest once again. A local judge put Quim Torra’s manoevres on hold, but he’s appealing. And for what reason were these measures applied? Were people dropping dead in the streets? No. Spain is turning into ‘Communist China’, it’s as simple as that, didn’t the Chinese regime put out draconian internal travel restrictions? Well, we’re a mere hair’s breadth from normalised travel controls. You can see it in both Galicia with its controls on ‘crowding’ on its beaches, and its apparent with the Baleares regional government’s ‘war’ on tourists. People are going to want to stop coming to Spain and tourism represents 12.3% of GDP. It’s not as if it can just be ‘replaced’. These are dangerous times indeed.

Jerry Owen

16th July 2020 at 4:00 pm

I appreciate the occasional glimpses you give here to life in Spain from first hand perspective.
We now have selective lockdowns here Leicester being a prime example. However when reported on tv they showed a graph with the ‘increase’ in covid cases, I paused the tv and studied the graph. The infection rate turned out to be 124 per 100,000 people. I have not added to many zeros btw !
Is it government panic or something more sinister ?

Gareth Edward KING

16th July 2020 at 6:13 pm

Jerry, Well, I’m glad someone reads my ‘rants’. So, Leicester’s been under a semi-lockdown? As usual, the context’s missing and the context is everything. It seems to me that drumming up ‘fear’ is extremely useful to the elites and so they can do as they wish. If I only received my news items via a SmartPhone it would seem that this Covid-nonsense is a calamity, but being able to measure up the entire news situation (which I know some of us do) it would appear indeed that it’s politically expedient to go on and on about this pesky virus, even if that means closing down entire cities. Joe Orton wouldn’t’ve put up with it for sure!

Hasting Keith

16th July 2020 at 9:02 pm

Your description of the situation in Spain fills me with despair and makes me wonder how much things have changed since I returned to the UK after living there for 7 years. One of the things I admired about the Spanish was their distinction between serious law and the ‘ley facil’ or stupid law. Break one of the 10 commandments – that’s serious; break one of the stupid laws – that’s your civic duty. I remember talking to one of the old boys in my village about this, and him recounting that in the days of Franco you could be arrested for being immodestly dressed (in a short sleeved shirt) on a Sunday (let alone not being seen to attend church). I told him about the rules then being introduced in the UK, where the council would fine you if you didn’t put your rubbish in the correct recycling bin. He told me that if this happened in Spain there would civil insurrection, and I believed him. There was a strong ethos throughout the village of obedience to ‘serious laws’ (presumably through their Catholicism) but also an assumed duty to ignore (and in some cases actively flout) the ‘stupid laws’, particularly those petty laws that were reminiscent of the Franco era. This blend of social conservatism and libertarianism had good and bad points – the bad points being the death toll on the roads (wearing of seatbelts was a ‘stupid law’) and the good points being an aversion to any kind of discrimination (I may not approve of homosexuality but nobody should discriminate against them). That was rural Murcia, so I don’t know how different that would be to Madrid.
Anyway, getting back to the main point: why is the wearing of facemasks in Spain not considered a ‘ley facil’ that should be actively flouted? I know the 100 Euro fines are a deterrent, but it seems from what you are saying that the pressure to comply is coming from the citizens. Where has that libertarian spirit that I encountered gone to?

Gareth Edward KING

16th July 2020 at 11:41 pm

Keith, You must’ve been living in Spain a fair while back. In today’s El Mundo they published a survey of attitudes to both the current ‘health crisis’ and whether ‘current measures were too soft or acceptable’. In both cases the Covid-(non) crisis is regarded much more seriously than ‘mere’ economic issues especially in terms of the overeaction of this (minority) government. Support for the PSOE remains high, at 68% apparently! and the survey revealed that ‘stronger measures’ should be taken to ‘combat’ the virus. Which ‘stronger measures’? Now that is worrying! Measures can only be more stringent if there’s a repeat of the lockdown which lasted 14 weeks! In Galicia the new government (PP) with Fejoo in power again (4th consecutive victory) wants equivalent central state powers at a CA level, i.e. Galicia could install its own ‘lockdown’ without a ‘state of alarm’ being instigated again. Presently, the latter situation has to be voted in through congress.
It seems to me that Madrid is oblivious to the economic knock-on effects after the March-June lockdown. Don’t they care? Do they really think that reducing capacity by 50% in cinemas and theatres? or 30% in restaurants will have no effect on prices or people’s employment in these places? The service sector is the prime mover in a city like Madrid, but at this rate it’ll fail. If tourism is being regarded in such a cack-handed fashion, which sectors will replace its inevitable failure? I & D? I don’t think so. People are so fearful that they are unable to think clearly, and the government knows this. In September I’ll be back at school (technically) but I know as sure as the Sun rises in the east that these ‘social distancing’ measures and muzzles being demanded of children won’t work, and are socially undesirable in any case. But will there be a push-back? Four months have passed since this incessant fear-mongering came to the fore and I still see people with visors, muzzles and latex gloves on; they’re the ones who insist on walking down the middle of the road! It’s utter madness!

Richard GIBBONS

16th July 2020 at 12:49 pm

That 11 covid deaths includes a 93 year old family member with cancer who went into hospital for palliative care whilst a hospice place was organised. He did not have it when he went in but 3 days later he died of it according to the death certificate.

dawn payne

16th July 2020 at 6:08 pm

I just wonder how many more with the same result.

John Pretty

16th July 2020 at 9:20 pm

A great many.

Mike Jackson

16th July 2020 at 10:14 pm

A similar example was quoted a few days ago. A woman in her 40s who had initially not been expected to live at birth and who was permanently isolated and cared for be her father who likewise virtually never left the house. Yet the death certificate recorded CV-19 as the cause!

The ONS records 9,140 deaths for w/e July 3 — almost exactly the five-year average for week 27. Eleven deaths due to CV-19 is barely noticeable, hardly even a rounding error!

Ben, as usual, hits the nail on the head. We are falling victim to the current scientific obsession — “publish or be damned, to obscurity”. Good science, bad science; who cares as long as the grants keep rolling in? And there is nothing as guaranteed to raise a researcher’s profile (or a Department’s) as being seen to “advise” government.

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