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Well, that didn’t last long. The cross-party consensus on how to tackle coronavirus in the UK seemed to be at breaking point today as Labour and other opposition parties demanded to know just why we weren’t following other countries’ crackdowns.
Of course, it’s perfectly healthy that a government is probed and scrutinised - that’s precisely why parliament will keep open for the foreseeable future, as both Commons and Lords speakers announced tonight. There’s nothing wrong with Boris Johnson being forced to do more to justify each step of his actions in this momentous period.
There are certainly plenty of legitimate questions about the need for more transparency over the epidemiological and behavioural modelling being relied on by Downing Street to justify their current plan to ‘delay’ Covid-19.
Central to the approach of chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance - and the entire team of advisers who sit on the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (whose acronym coincidentally suggests they are offering SAGE advice) - is the evidence that imposing drastic measures too early will simply mean inevitable ‘‘fatigue’ on the part of the public.
The assumption is that human beings slip back to previous behaviour and then risk a fresh spike in the outbreak. As Vallance put it neatly today: “If you suppress something very, very hard, when you release those measures it bounces back and it bounces back at the wrong time.”
Still, shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth was right to say that public confidence could be strengthened if ministers could publish more of the science behind their decisions. The government should indeed move onto the “explain stage”, as he put it, and expand on “why their strategy is correct and the strategy in Ireland or Spain is incorrect”.
The key fact that our NHS would be hard hit by a loss of staff if schools were closed, plus evidence that banning flights makes little impact, is already out there. But there is certainly a big question mark over why the government has so far failed to offer any detailed advice to the care home sector or more generally for those caring for the elderly. No.10 made a big misstep today when it said local elections would go ahead, and then was forced to U-turn later,.
Still, shadow chancellor John McDonnell struck a jarring note today. When he declared that “it seems No 10 is following Donald Trump’s lead yet again”, he sounded not like a frontbencher but more like the backbencher he has been for most of his career. Because one thing is for sure: Johnson’s approach could not be more unlike Trump’s. He has listened consistently to scientific advice, acted quickly to unveil an economic package and put out the right public health messages about hand washing.
Trump’s erratic conduct, his appalling labelling of coronavirus as a ‘hoax’ (then a ‘foreign’ or ‘Chinese’ disease), his bonkers ban on EU travel, his market-moving suggestion (that had to be corrected within minutes) that European cargo would be banned from the US, is all miles away from Johnson’s conduct. The fact that he’s finally tonight declared a ‘national emergency’ shows how he’s veered from fake news to complacency to panic in just 24 hours.
Which brings us back to the UK’s scientific advisers. Neither Vallance nor chief medical officer Chris Whitty are elected, of course. But perhaps because of that they obviously feel a huge sense of responsibility that their advice is now a matter of life and death.
One of the cruellest charges that some critics are making today is that the government is ‘putting the economy before lives’, that they are deploying a strategy to deliberately allow some people to die in order to get the overall numbers down. Their target is Johnson, but they should stop to think that they are also really targeting public servants like Vallance and Whitty.
After this crisis plays out, we will find out just whether the government’s approach has achieved the lower numbers of deaths it is aiming for. It’s essential that everything it does is scrutinised and when mistakes are made for them to be rectified. But right now, the worst thing would be to accuse scientists and their fellow public servants of anything like bad faith.
In fact, one of the most significant things Vallance said today was this: “We should be prepared to change our minds as the evidence changes. We cannot go in with a fixed plan that is immutable.” He’s ready to change tack, as long as there is evidence to do so.
When he was appointed as chief scientist last year, Vallance gave an interview to a specialist science website when he said: “Senior politicians turn to me when they want to hear the unvarnished truth on issues. They don’t have to then take [my advice] but I’m not worried about speaking scientific truth to power.”
Every armchair expert on coronavirus should remember that in the life-changing weeks ahead.
Quote Of The Day
“Parliament should, insofar as possible, continue to fulfil its important constitutional duties of passing legislation, holding Government to account and, crucially, representing the views of the people of the United Kingdom and making their voice heard.”
– Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Lords Speaker Lord Fowler
Friday Cheat Sheet
Local and mayoral elections in England will be postponed for a year to May 2021 due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Visitor access to Parliament will be restricted from Monday, but both houses will continue to operate and the public will be free to watch debates.
Health minister Nadine Dorries, who tested positive for coronavirus earlier this week, revealed her 84-year-old mother now also has Covid-19.
Boris Johnson is determined the Brexit transition period will close at the end of December, despite the risk of the Covid-19 crisis disrupting negotiations, No.10 said.
The official report into Northern Ireland’s ‘cash-for-ash’ scandal heavily criticised the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), special advisers and civil servants.
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