Rod Liddle Rod Liddle

The Covid Inquiry has unmasked the flaws in trusting ‘the science’

There is something therapeutic and healing in watching Professor Chris Whitty give evidence to the independent public inquiry into the Covid pandemic – the sense of calm emanating from the man, his occasionally Panglossian self-satisfaction, his refusal to become anything more than barely ruffled even when his interlocuters gently venture forth the suggestion: ‘Overreaction?’ The impression one gets, or perhaps is supposed to get, is of a very clever, terribly rational man in a world full of thicko scumbags.

This lack of debate was exacerbated in the country at large by that curse of our age, political polarisation

I watch a little daytime TV at the moment as part of my rest and recuperation programme following that car crash I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. More usually it is one of the quiz shows, such as Tipping Point, where the contestants are from the very opposite end of the intellectual scale to Chris and can only enrage with their stupidity. No, Shenille – sadly, Tony Blair was not prime minister at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar. Listening to Whitty’s comforting emollience, I can almost feel my hitherto distraught muscles knitting back together, repairing themselves, filling with blood and blooming. He is like a very expensive balm.

What we learn from this inquiry – that the scientists are convinced we should have imposed lockdown earlier and harder, for example – is maybe less interesting than what one might read between the lines. Or, as those scientists would disdainfully put it, speculation. The first and most obvious thing is the withering contempt in which the scientists held the politicians, which must surely have made the management of the pandemic more problematic than it needed to be.

We can infer this from the testimony of the former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, for example. With scarcely disguised scorn, Vallance suggested that science was not Boris Johnson’s ‘forte’ and that the then prime minister needed to have fairly simple graphs explained to him over and over again until he finally grasped the point. This contempt occasionally broke cover during that long, rather wonderful summer of 2020, not least over Rishi Sunak’s fairly ridiculous Eat Out to Help Out scheme, with newspapers reporting disquiet among the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) at one or other governmental misstep. In fairness to the scientists, they were dealing with a government which had chosen the intellectual titan Matt Hancock to be in charge of the country’s health, which he did with a kind of messianic idiocy.

The second is the make-up of that very committee, Sage – the people who for a year or so effectively became our unelected government. Its membership was rather closely confined and, during cross-examination, Whitty admitted that at first it was probably too narrow in its membership. According to him it later became much broader, but when asked more specifically about who might have been co-opted to give a differing view, he channelled Dr Pangloss again and suggested that in theory an infinite number of scientists might have been invited to provide their expertise, but that too many voices would have made consensus more difficult to achieve. Hmm – this is rather the problem, the nature of that consensus. Whitty admitted – indeed stated almost with pride – that no economists had been consulted, for example.

The issue here is that too great a proportion of the scientists had intellectual skin in the game. Science is perhaps mankind’s greatest achievement, but we sometimes forget that it is practised by humans, with all their frailties and inclinations. The point being that Sage may have been providing the government with advice with which all or most epidemiologists might concur – but without the corrective advice that might be provided by an economist or, for that matter, an oncologist. The advice was always about the immediate, and while Whitty insisted that he and his colleagues were at pains to alert ministers to the potential downsides of action taken to prevent the spread of the virus, we might infer that those downsides were flagged up with rather less avidity than would have been the case if the committee had heard from one or two dissenting voices from different scientific disciplines.

This lack of debate was exacerbated in the country at large by that curse of our age, political polarisation: many of those who might have raised a warning about the long-term effects of sequential lockdowns – the teachers, for example – were too often ideologically committed to what became the leftish view that no lockdown could possibly be sufficiently stringent and they should continue ad infinitum. We have seen more recently the effect this has had on schoolchildren.

Faced with this, one understands a little better the mindset which seems to have established itself in our politicians, including the mindset which led them to enjoy riotous parties when everybody else was confined to barracks. They were given advice which was far, far too narrow and, put simply, they didn’t entirely trust it. Vallance remarked that Johnson had particular difficulty understanding the consequences of government interventions (such as lockdowns) on the spread of the virus. My suspicion is the former PM was at heart deeply sceptical – for ideological as well as perfectly rational reasons – about these interventions and needed convincing that he was being told the
unvarnished truth.

In short, it was a government that had pledged to ‘follow the science’ but was always doubtful about its veracity. The final break came when Johnson refused to impose a lockdown during the Christmas of 2021, a decision which history suggests was unquestionably correct: the scientists at the time begged to differ and of course the Scots went their own way. The lesson to be learned, I reckon, is that it is no use following the science if the science comes from only one direction and there is no open debate about its efficacy or otherwise.