This article was originally published on 8 May 2020
The Neil Ferguson story had everything. There was sex, hypocrisy and a “married lover”. At a time when pubs are closed and the football is cancelled, the solid British tradition of a good old public shaming remains comfortingly accessible. But the most interesting element was not the revelation that scientists are in fact fallible human beings like the rest of us. It was the reaction of the media, which used the story to distract us from the real news: that the UK now had the worst death toll in Europe. This story wasn’t about a scientist’s hypocrisy: it was about deflecting from the government’s failure.
From the start, the government has used the media as both a mouthpiece and target. While friendly newspapers have plastered their pages with coverage about Boris Johnson’s new child, Britain’s lead on a vaccine, and the increase in tests, unfriendly outlets have been frozen out. The BBC’s Newsnight has been the subject, like the Today programme was before it, of an effective government boycott. If a foreign government boycotted their country’s flagship news programmes we would write solemn op-eds about the growth of authoritarianism and the threats to democratic culture. When it happens under our noses we barely remark on it.
After Wednesday’s prurient headlines about Ferguson, the tabloids turned their attention to the end of lockdown. Johnson had discussed the relaxation of restrictions at Prime Minister’s Questions and the newspapers were full of details about what was to come. This, too, was a deliberate government tactic. Because Johnson is desperate to steer the conversation away from the death toll, we have to talk about something else.
Discussing the lockdown, of course, offers a golden opportunity to blame someone else: the public. Ordinary people were shamed as the restrictions began and will be again as they end. At the start of the crisis, the government simply advised people to wash their hands and openly discussed the notion of “herd immunity”. Because the message almost seemed to be that young and healthy people should aim to get the virus, those people went to the parks and pubs. As the messaging changed on a daily basis, it was never adequately explained why they suddenly had to stay home. In the early days of lockdown, ministers and the right-wing media duly launched a full-scale attack on the sunbathers and fell-walkers. They never accepted those people might have been confused because the government had explicitly confused them.
It was perhaps no coincidence that Ferguson himself was considered the architect of the lockdown. It was his team’s modelling at Imperial College which established the worst-case scenario of 500,000 deaths, which reportedly shocked the government into tougher action. That made him a powerful enemy in the media. Predictably, various publications have now attempted to discredit that modelling, as though a man guilty of a personal failing must necessarily have also failed in his job.
The health secretary Matt Hancock also joined the fray, and appeared to endorse legal proceedings against Ferguson – even though, as senior lawyers pointed out, he had remained at home and not actually broken any law. This was not just a traditional attempt to ascribe criminality to a moral misdemeanour. It was another way in which the government has used scientists as a human shield.
“This crisis needs scientists, and those scientists will on occasion fail. But the real failure remains the government which hides behind them.”
For over two months the government has been telling us, each day, that it is “following the science”. That is not just empty, but false. Science is not monolithic, and scientists disagree with one another. It also fails to explain the differences with other countries. It is arguable that Korea “followed the science” by tracing and quarantining contacts of victims, Czechia followed it in mid-March by mandating face masks on public transport and in supermarkets, and New Zealand followed it by requiring anyone entering the country to self-isolate and locking down before anyone had died. If the UK government was simply “following the science” then we must surely ask why our science was so different and, it turned out, so wrong.
The fact is that this is not about science but politics. Politicians have hidden behind the science, and when they abandoned the initial policy simply declared the ‘science had changed’. Even if that were true, it would make no difference. Scientists are indispensable but they are not in charge. The government alone is elected and it alone will be accountable.
But of course it is not just about science, it is also about war. The government has used VE Day, in particular, to draw parallels between the two events. To be sure, many people do feel a sense of shared purpose and coming together, and a profound uncertainty and fear that also marks wartime. But the government is using war in a different way.
First is the propaganda purpose of rallying the country. In March, Johnson finally had his Churchill moment when he vowed to “defeat the enemy”, and at the daily media briefings his ministers herald their success in the ‘fight’.
Second is the sense that this could not be foreseen. Johnson has described coronavirus as an “unexpected and invisible mugger”. Of course the government wants us to view it in this way. If we see the virus as an assailant and the government as totally powerless, we cannot blame our leaders for succumbing to it. Indeed, that would be victim-blaming, and, as such, the height of unfairness. Of course, the government could not have stopped a pandemic from reaching this country altogether. But the point is that on the issues it did control, it failed time and again. It failed to stop public gatherings, failed to introduce social distancing soon enough, and failed to introduce a lockdown at the moment it was most necessary. Ministers assured us we were prepared for the pandemic and didn’t need to go down the same path as Italy. Instead of learning the lesson of that country, we simply considered ourselves special or superior to it. Two months on, our crisis is worse than theirs.
A government which constantly fails will do anything it can to deflect. Ministers will change the subject, blame other people and deny the failures have even taken place. They will claim at all times that they are following the science. This crisis needs scientists, and those scientists will on occasion fail. But the real failure remains the government which hides behind them.
Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the pro-EU think tank British Influence.