June 23, 2024


Science It Works

In our determination to ‘follow the science’ we have abandoned all logic

The latest announcement on travel and Covid has, I confess, left me confused. It appears that someone from overseas, with documents proving they have been double-vaccinated with a reliable covid vaccine, may enter the UK without having to quarantine, providing they test negative. UK citizens, on the other hand, must still self-isolate at the first ping of their test and trace app, even if they have already had two jabs. ‘The science’, we are told, means this will remain the case until 16  August. In short – we are happy to accept the certification of vaccination for a foreign country, but not our own. 

Meanwhile, the overseas travel traffic light system changes so frequently that it’s often confusing. This week, we were told that France had to return to an ‘amber plus’ rating, which obliges all arrivals from France to go into quarantine, supposedly due to a higher prevalence of the Beta variant in France. 

The French soon hit back, saying that the Beta variant affects only 2 per cent of those infected, the overwhelming majority having the Delta variant. The UK retaliated by pointing to higher Beta prevalence on the island of Réunion, a French department in the Indian Ocean. Quite apart from the fact it is a 13-hour flight away, no one seemed to have spotted that if you travel directly to the UK from Réunion, you wouldn’t have to self-isolate anyway.

I understand and sympathise with my colleagues in government who rely on scientific advice to inform their decisions. Yet I wonder just how variable that advice has been. One minister likened trying to get a scientist to give a definitive answer, on which you could base a decision, to attempting to gather mercury with a fork. As the pandemic has gone on, the phrase that has struck me as not always reassuring has been, “we are following the science.” The question is, which scientist’s interpretation of the science would that be?

Consider the advice at the beginning of the pandemic on face masks; though different scientists held different views, it was invariably the politicians who were criticised for not ordering their use sooner. 

Or another peculiar spectacle; scientists who sit on the Sage committee, working to assemble advice and forecasts on possible outcomes to inform the Prime Minister’s decisions – who will suddenly come out and offer their personal views to the media. Collective responsibility doesn’t seem to apply in Sage. 

Whenever the Prime Minister thinks of easing lockdown, out they come, like poker players, upping the ante on each other’s dire forecasts. Remember the warning that we might conceivably reach 100,000 – or even 200,000 – infections a day? 

Looking back, those who predicted doomsday but got it wrong are rarely held accountable for it. “I only said the number of infections could reach, not would”, they say, and the conversation moves on. No such luck for the outlier voices who proved overly-optimistic on the matter of unlocking. There’s no forgetting them. 

As infections fall, defying the gloomy forecasts, commentators describe these better-than-expected outcomes as ‘perplexing’, somehow mysterious. This perhaps explains why so many of the forecasts chucked out by celebrity scientists on the media round have been so significantly overcooked. It leaves much more room for manoeuvre afterwards.

Before Covid, I had lost count of how often we were told that politicians are unable to agree; that their debates are pointless and drive poor decision-making. Likewise it has often been claimed that the beauty of science is its tendency to deal in certainties and exactitude. Well, at least now we lesser mortals know that just like politicians and economists, when you get two scientists in a room, you ‘could get’ 100,000 different opinions.