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When Boris Johnson originally set out plans to relax restrictions at Christmas, he placed himself at odds with the government’s own scientific advisers. Despite their warnings about the potential effects of five days of household mixing, with ministers receiving a paper in November setting out the risks involved, Johnson described any change of position as “inhuman” and attacked the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, for wanting to “cancel” Christmas.
It took the emergence of a new and far more infectious variant of Covid-19 to force the prime minister into changing the government’s position. In this decision, as in so many, the UK (and its government) has benefited from a strong science community that was able to quickly analyse key elements of the new mutation. The government has also gained from a system of science advice that has worked at full pelt throughout the crisis, and which swiftly relayed the bad news: this variant was a potential game-changer.
But while the government may have acted on restrictions in the south-east over the weekend, research from the Institute for Government sets out how government uncertainty and U-turns over Christmas plans are just the latest example of a wider pattern. Repeatedly during the pandemic, the government’s communication of key public health messages has been haphazard, and its advice and use of evidence confused.
The headlines berating the prime minister for his Christmas U-turn are the culmination of a year of chaotic decision-making. While there’s reason to feel some sympathy for a government placed in this extraordinary position, its confused messaging began at the very start of the crisis, when the government looked to scientists for judgments that only politicians can make – captured in ministers’ misleading mantra that they were “following the science”.
The government has often hesitated in the face of urgency, delaying the first national lockdown while it waited for guidance. Since then, ministers have struggled to explain to the public why they sometimes choose to listen to scientific advice, and sometimes do not. This was most evident in their failure to bring different strands of advice together to form a coherent strategy when restrictions were lifted from May. Scientists were not consulted about policies such as the “eat out to help out” scheme or “travel corridors”, the measure allowing passengers to travel to particular countries without isolating, which they thought were epidemiologically illiterate. Scientists were also kept out of discussions about the return of students to university until it was too late to influence policy.
And when the decision to introduce a second national lockdown was repeatedly delayed, and labelled by Johnson as “completely wrong”, it exacerbated the impression that science advice was another adversary the government had to battle – certainly for some newspapers and some of Johnson’s own MPs.
In part, the reasons for this were political. Johnson was concerned about the economic consequences of lockdown and was under considerable pressure from Conservative MPs opposed to pandemic restrictions. But the reasons were personal too: Johnson is not a politician who likes to say no. His brand of laissez-faire optimism conflicts with calls to stay at home – let alone the idea of cancelling Christmas.
Some of the difficulties stem from how scientific advice is organised. Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) was only ever designed to be an ad-hoc body – the clue is in the “E” – but it has had to adapt to semi-permanent status. It has now met more than 70 times, and its members, many working pro bono throughout the pandemic, have produced more than 360 working papers. These papers are all usually published, while other advice, particularly economic, is not. This prominence makes its conclusions very visible and gives it a much stronger status in the minds of the public and the media than other, unpublished, advice.
But the main problem throughout the pandemic has been the government’s failure to make convincing decisions based on a clear strategy, and then persuade MPs and the public of their merits.
It failed in early December to set out a cautious approach to the Christmas break, instead boxing itself in with optimistic promises, even as modelling showed a grim picture emerging. As figures worsened, ministers refused calls to change direction, and failed to clearly explain how to mitigate risks ahead of Christmas until far too late – even though its Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) gave ministers a paper last month on these very points.
These recent examples followed a pattern of over-optimistic messages and promises followed by bad news as the government has lurched between alarm and reassurance. It’s no surprise that the public feels confused.
At the start of the coronavirus crisis the government sought to hide behind the science, as ministers waited for scientific certainty rather than taking responsibility for preemptive decisions. But as the year reaches its end, the government is in danger of seeming to hide from the science, until there is no other option. With the government’s advisers now warning that tier 3 will not be enough, and the likelihood that severe restrictions will be imposed for months, the government – particularly the prime minister – need to take the lead on the bad news, and be clear with the public.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The UK government’s chaotic handling of Covid made a Christmas U-turn inevitable | Coronavirus