By Jonathan (Lord) Sumption
DOES the Government have a policy for coronavirus? Indeed it does. In fact, it has several. One for each month of the year, all mutually inconsistent and none of them properly thought through. Sometimes, governments have to change tack. It shows that they are attending closely to a changing situation. But this crisis has exposed something different and more disturbing: a dysfunctional Government with a deep-seated incoherence at the heart of its decision-making processes.
The root of the problem is the uncomfortable relationship between the Government and its scientific advisers. The Government has repeatedly claimed to be ‘guided by the science’. This has in practice been a shameless attempt to evade responsibility by passing the buck to scientists for what are ultimately political, and not scientific, decisions. Scientists can advise what measures are likely to reduce infections and deaths. Only politicians can decide whether those measures make sense in economic and social terms too.
Sage, the committee of scientists advising the Government, has been very clear about this, as the minutes of its meetings show. They are not willing to become the Government’s human shield, or the fall-guys for its policy misjudgments.
Ministers press them for the kind of unequivocal answers that will protect them from criticism. Scientists cover themselves by giving equivocal answers, which reflect the uncertainty of the science. The Government responds by avoiding any decision for which it would have to take political responsibility, until the pressure of events becomes irresistible, when it lurches off in a new direction. Plan A was published on March 3. It concentrated on ensuring the provision of medical and other essential services. It relied on advice and guidance to the public, not coercion. The Government stood out against the authoritarian and indiscriminate measures which were being applied in Italy, and later in other European countries.
Plan B was an abrupt U-turn. On March 18, the Government announced the closure of schools. On March 20, pubs, cafes and restaurants were added. Finally, it announced the full lockdown on the evening of March 23.
That was a last-minute decision made that afternoon, for which the Government had made no preparations at all. It had not included a lockdown power in the Coronavirus Bill which was then going through Parliament.
Instead, it was forced to make legally questionable use of public health legislation designed to control the movements of infected people, not healthy ones. Even then, it took another three days to prepare the regulations, and meanwhile pretended that they were in force when they were not. Judging by its minutes, Sage was unenthusiastic about closing down the hospitality industry, forbidding large gatherings or closing schools. From an early stage, it had pointed out that the real threat was to people over 70 and those with serious underlying medical conditions. Since March 5 they had been advising the Government to ‘cocoon’ those people, and others who either had the disease or lived in the same household.
Sage appears to have envisaged guidance rather than compulsion. ‘Citizens’, the behavioural scientists advised, ‘should be treated as rational actors, capable of taking decisions for themselves and managing personal risk.’ If this advice had been followed, it would have left almost all the economically active members of the population free to earn their livings and sustain the economy.
Indiscriminate lockdown was a panic response to the now-notorious statistical model produced on March 16 by Professor Neil Ferguson’s team at Imperial College. Panic responses leave little room for reflection. No serious consideration appears to have been given to the potentially catastrophic side effects. In fact, the Imperial team did identify the main problem about a lockdown. In an earlier report to Sage, they had pointed out that once a disease had taken hold in a population, ‘measures which are too effective merely push all transmission to the period after they are lifted, giving a delay but no substantial reduction in either peak incidence or overall attack rate’.
They repeated this view when they recommended a lockdown on March 16 and said that to be effective, it would need to be maintained until a vaccine was available, ‘potentially 18 months or more’. They pointed out that this would involve ‘enormous’ social and economic costs which might themselves have a significant impact on health and wellbeing.
The Government justified its Plan B as a temporary measure designed only to delay the peak until the NHS’s intensive care capacity had caught up.
But when it came to Plan C, which was unveiled on May 10, they forgot all about that. By then the NHS had caught up, mainly as a result of the Government’s one undoubted achievement, namely the rapid increase in the country’s critical care capacity. The Government dropped ‘Protect the NHS’ from its slogan. The NHS was saved.
But instead of lifting the lockdown, it merely nibbled at its edges, announcing that its essential features would remain in place for weeks or months. No rational explanation was ever offered. But the logic of its position was that the lockdown would have to continue indefinitely.
‘Christ!’ the Prime Minister is reported to have said when Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Business Secretary Alok Sharma explained the economic consequences to him three weeks later on June 2. We were heading for an economic catastrophe: gross domestic product down by more than a fifth and falling; 3.5million jobs set to be lost in the hospitality industry alone; unemployment already up to two million; several million businesses snuffed out; job openings for a generation of young people extinguished. Why was the PM so surprised? What did he expect to happen if he closed down the economy for several months and conducted a scorched earth campaign against the rest of our national life? The only plausible explanation was that he had never properly thought about it.
So we moved to Plan D, announced on June 10, which involved a general return to work. But in many areas the return was stymied by the Government’s two-metre physical distancing rule. The rule never had any rational basis. Very few other countries have it. The World Health Organisation recommends one metre.
Experiments by the Department of Health (reviewed by Sage) indicate that the risk of airborne transmission is low outside a healthcare setting. It is being maintained because the Government wants scientific cover and Sage cannot rule out some risk that prolonged face-to-face contact at less than two metres might cause some infection. No one in government was grown-up enough to confront the real issue: does a low risk justify a huge economic cost? Finally, there is the ultimate absurdity of the quarantine Turn to Page 28 ?? From Page 27 recently imposed on incoming travellers, which the Government has admitted was not based on any scientific advice, but sim ply (it seems) on the mistaken belief that the public would applaud it.
The Government is now trying to back track by negotiating ‘air bridges’ with other countries. But it does not need to negotiate anything. This is a problem of our creation. We can simply lift the restric tion at our end. Like so many of the Gov ernment’s measures, it is being maintained simply in order to avoid admitting that it was a mistake.
I have had no political allegiance for many years. I have observed the coming and going of governments of one party or another with equal indifference. But it is hard to be indifferent to what is hap pening now. You have to go back to the early 1930s to find a British Cabinet as devoid of talent as this one.
The Prime Minister, who in practice makes most of the decisions, has low polit ical cunning but no governmental skills whatever. He is incapable of studying a complex problem in depth. He thinks as he speaks – in slogans.
These people have no idea what they are doing, because they are unable to think about more than one thing at a time or to look further ahead than the end of their noses. Yet they wield awesome power. They are destroying our economy, our cultural life and our children’s education in a fit of absent-mindedness.
Jonathan Sumption is a former Supreme Court judge and last year’s BBC Reith Lecturer