The familiar refrain of “we’re following the science” has been a regular soundbite for Boris Johnson and his colleagues in government during the coronavirus pandemic, as they seek to reassure the public they’re doing everything they can halt it.
Yet over 100,000 and counting Brits are dead as a result of Covid-19, one of the worst death tolls of any country on earth.
Does that mean science is not the trusted, rigorous and largely infallible system of thought, knowledge and experiment we’ve been led to believe?
Absolutely not. A quick comparison of the science the government has actually said it’s following, versus what the government has actually done, reveals they’ve rarely followed the mantras they’ve so willingly expounded.
Google results suggest the expressions “guided by the science” and “follow the science” appeared on national and local government websites hundreds of times in 2020, compared with just seven in all previous years combined. And the phrases were used repeatedly by health secretary Matt Hancock and prime minister Boris Johnson at press conferences and in the Commons.
Here are a few of the times when the government seemingly wasn’t “guided by the science”.
The border closures
Sage recommended: That only mandatory hotel quarantines for all arrivals or a total border shutdown would keep mutations at bay.
The warning came as fears rose that another new and more infectious variant of the disease, this time originating in South Africa, could infect and spread among Brits, adding to crisis caused by the UK’s own variant which has swept the country.
The government: Waited a week and then introduced far laxer measures.
Boris Johnson outlined a plan only for travellers coming from 30 “red list” countries to face up to 10 days in hotel self-isolation.
The looser restrictions are still not in place and not official date has been announced.
Even more galling, the Independent Sage group of scientists recommended the use of quarantine hotels to stop imported cases from international travellers – all the way back in May last year.
The Christmas relaxations
Sage recommended: Cutting the three-household “Christmas bubbling” rule (on which more in a moment) from five days to one or two at its meeting on December 2.
The government: Spent two weeks not acting, said it would be “inhuman” to change people’s Christmas plans, then with just three days to spare cancelled the relaxation altogether for parts of the country on December 19 – and reduced it everywhere else from five days to one.
Bedroom tax and the benefit cap
Sage recommended: Scrapping the bedroom tax, and the “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) and benefit cap rules that limited the amount of government help people could access. They said at their meeting on November 24 that these factors could make it harder for people to self-isolate by reducing the amount of space available for them to stay away from others, and forcing them to work even while sick so they could afford to live.
The government: Didn’t. The Department for Work and Pensions defended the bedroom tax as “an important tool to help to manage housing support expenditure and enable mobility within the social rented sector” and pointed to billions of pounds it had spent on welfare this year more generally.
The word ‘bubbles’
Sage recommended: Find a better word than “bubbles”. Specifically, on November 24, it said the rules around household mixing should be “communicated in a meaningful way so that it is clear how it applies. [...] For example, the term ‘bubbles’ does not translate easily into non-English languages so alternative terms should be identified which will resonate”.
The government: Continued to refer to bubbles (for instance, here).
Helping children self-isolate
Sage recommended: Give young Covid sufferers free Netflix and data to help them stick to the rules and self-isolate. This advice was given on October 22.
The government: Hasn’t done this.
Sage recommended: Imposing a two-week circuit breaker lockdown to control rising infections. This advice was given on September 21.
The government: Resisted calls for a circuit breaker, instead introducing a tiered lockdown system and, subsequently, a second national lockdown – but not until early November, by which time infections had grown substantially:
Online teaching at universities
Sage recommended: Moving all university teaching online unless “absolutely essential” on September 21.
The government: Didn’t instruct universities to move all non-essential teaching online. Infection rates at universities soared and students’ mental as well as physical health suffered.
Opening of businesses
Sage recommended: Shutting bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms and hairdressers on September 21.
The government: Kept them all open unless they were in local lockdown. It didn’t shut the rest, as Sage wanted, until the second UK lockdown six weeks later.
Sage recommended: Banning all household mixing indoors, again on September 21.
The government: Continued to allow household mixing (except where there were local lockdowns in place) until the second national lockdown in November.
Risk to students
Sage warned: There would be a “significant” risk of infection, including asymptomatic spread, if students returned to campus. This is taken from a meeting on September 3.
The government: Sent students back to campus. Thousands caught the virus. There was also some limited evidence that areas with the most students suffered higher levels of Covid than other places in the country.
Protecting Black and Asian people
Sage recommended: Given that Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups have been among the hardest hit by the virus (see here, here and here, for instance), the risk to them should be “mitigated by policy makers”. Sage also told the government on June 4 that it was important to involve BAME groups in “framing research questions, participating in research projects, sharing findings and implementing recommendations”.
The government: Failed to stop BAME groups being among the worst affected in the second wave, and continued to host overwhelmingly white press conferences about Covid that may have contributed to a lack of trust in government advice among some communities. It also didn’t prioritise BAME people for the vaccine.
Sage and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance recommended: Don’t reopen schools from June 1 without an effective test and trace system.
The government: Reopened schools for some students before the summer holidays even though Test and Trace didn’t begin regularly hitting its 80% target for reaching close contacts until December.
Sage scientist Lucy Yardley recommended: People should be made to quarantine in government-sanctioned hotels. In June, the professor of health psychology at Bristol and Southampton universities warned that many people with Covid-19 symptoms were not self-isolating and suggested physically providing them with accommodation to do so in.
The government: Has not taken any action and even the use of quarantine hotels for people arriving from overseas is yet to be rolled out, as mentioned in the first entry of this very lengthy list.