This week’s face masks psychodrama offered a glimpse of the new phase that the JBC might signal; a world where science is no longer just biased, but categorically not up for discussion. As ministers clashed over the question of whether masks should be mandatory, the debate over whether they work was cunningly sidelined. Nor did the country seem to notice that the Government’s move to make masks compulsory in shops contradicted Sage’s scepticism over the evidence in their favour.
Which hits on the volatile vulnerability of Britain’s highest scientific authority. Throughout this crisis, Sage has swung from painful irrelevance – contesting in vain the Government’s bizarre quarantine measures, for example – to stoking hysteria with doom-mongering modelling. This week, its more activist-minded members seemed to respond to No 10’s latest rejection with a barely-concealed bid to re-style Sage as a lobbying outfit.
In that it may yet succeed. In recent days, the media has savoured a paper commissioned by Sage head, Sir Patrick Vallance, which warned that a second winter wave more deadly than the first is a “reasonable” worst-case scenario. Few probed the paper’s reasoning – from its pessimistic assumption that the infection rate may need to reach 70 per cent for the country to achieve herd immunity to its failure to factor in treatment breakthroughs like dexamethasone.
Whitehall, of course, has form with “unreasonable” worst-case scenarios, long predating the notorious Imperial College lockdown paper. A decade ago, in an investigation into the quality of emergency scientific advice during a flu scare, the Commons Science & Technology Select Committee expressed concern that the then government’s “reasonable” worst case scenario seemed to be “influenced by the need to find a reasonable level of public expenditure for contingency planning rather than outlining the worst scenario that might realistically happen, based on the best available evidence”.
These suspicions were swept under the carpet; after all, a plastic definition of “reasonable” worst-case scenarios has, over the years, suited both Sage’s scientist-activists and politicians who dislike being advised to do things for which they lack the means. But in the end, this obscure technocratic quirk unleashed total systems failure: when the pandemic hit, ridiculous projections were touted as viable. Astute scientists quickly twigged that action with substantial, unquantifiable costs (like lockdowns) were acceptable; actions with substantial, quantifiable costs (like testing) were sidelined.
If career science led us over the cliff, our only route from rock bottom is to go back to basics, and follow the evidence. We could start with focusing on the vulnerable, rather than fixating over face masks. Rolling out new 20-minute Covid tests across care homes and creating a single organisation dedicated to monitoring hospital-related infections should be top of the list. And as experts continue to ponder points as basic as whether it’s possible to get Covid twice – and even whether the virus precedes the outbreak in Wuhan, now more than ever No 10 needs to be open to the evolving scientific debate.
In other words, it should be wargaming realistic scenarios with laser precision, at the same time as keeping an open mind. Instead it is preparing for the apocalypse with paper swords.