It’s ancient history now, but Boris Johnson’s March 9 press conference will go down as the critical event in the U.K.’s encounter with the coronavirus pandemic. At that precise moment it first became unclear who was really running the show.
The event was supposed to alert the public to the phased response the prime minister’s government planned to adopt. Implicitly admitting that stopping the disease was implausible, the goal would be to slow the spread to protect as many vulnerable people as possible while preventing an overload on the National Health Service.
Mr. Johnson and his scientific advisers evinced a recognition that the most drastic countermeasures, such as the total lockdown then in effect in Wuhan, China, would not be sustainable. So the British government, relying on internal scientific models, would ratchet up its response gradually. Start with hand-washing and mild forms of social distancing, and only later close schools or shut pubs.
That was the plan on March 9, anyway. Then the journalists started asking questions.
Mr. Johnson’s pandemic goose was cooked after the first one, from Vicki Young of the BBC: “It’s clear that some in the public are beginning to question why you’re not taking those more aggressive approaches . . . that we’re seeing in lots of other countries. And people are wondering why that’s not happening. Are you confident you are doing enough to keep people safe?”
Conspicuous during that and most briefings that followed was the lack of any sustained curiosity about the scientific model on which the government’s advice was based. The media—and other politicians—contented themselves to rely on other countries’ draconian policies as a benchmark.
As in the case of quack remedies of yore, the presumption quickly became that the more unpleasant a policy, the more effective it must be. Mr. Johnson has found it impossible to resist the tide, with the result that Britons are now for all intents and purposes locked down.
This is the context for the Imperial College London paper that turned the tide of the British response to the epidemic a week later. The doomsday scenario those epidemiologists laid out, projecting 510,000 deaths in the U.K. without aggressive government action, supposedly provided a scientific jolt to Mr. Johnson’s government and prompted a series of more draconian interventions much faster than the original plan.
Unknown, and unknowable until full records of Mr. Johnson’s cabinet deliberations emerge several decades hence, is whether this marked a causation or a correlation. Perhaps the ICL report stimulated new thinking about the course of the pandemic. Or perhaps it offered a ready excuse for a pirouette in response to enormous and not necessarily scientific media and public pressure.
The trouble is that our medical experts, as knowledgeable as they are about epidemiology or virology in general, are not yet experts in a meaningful sense on this new disease about which all of us know precious little for certain.
A separate team of researchers at Oxford University this week released their own model of the disease based on different but equally supportable assumptions about the virus’s transmissibility and lethality. Their analysis—which they believe fits with the course we know Covid-19 has followed to date in the U.K. and Italy—concludes at least 36% of Britons may already have contracted the disease as of last week with no or very mild symptoms.
Which experts to believe? This, it’s time to admit, is a political question. One day we will know the prevalence of infection in the population, how quickly the disease has spread, and what proportion of victims it kills. We can hope the science catches up in a hurry, in the best case via serological testing to identify who has had the disease already. But that may not arrive quickly enough to be useful to politicians making decisions today about how aggressively and for how long to shut down large portions of the global economy.
Politicians such as Mr. Johnson and President Trump instead will make those calls based on political calculations: What measures will reassure the public the situation is under control (Mr. Johnson), and how long will the public tolerate those measures (Mr. Trump)?
Politicians then will gladly abuse whatever science they find at hand to justify policy steps they think voters want—secure in the knowledge that the stunning and promising burst of scientific activity surrounding Covid-19 currently can produce research justifying just about any policy conclusion. Rejoice, for this means the politicians are doing their jobs. We pay them to make such decisions in the face of crippling technical uncertainty.
But we ought at least to be fair. As we voters debate those politicians’ decisions, let’s acknowledge how little of a role science may have played in all of our choices about the pandemic to date.
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