Boris Johnson’s brief love affair with science is well and truly over

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Boris Johnson loves a slogan. “Get Brexit Done” helped deliver his crushing victory in the December 2019 election, neatly bookending a period of British politics that started with another ubiquitous refrain: “Take Back Control”. In the first months of the UK’s coronavirus outbreak, the government opted for another three-word gem, repeatedly saying that its response to the virus was “guided by the science”.
“Guided by the science” and its close cousins “led by the science” and “following the science” have been the watchwords of the government’s coronavirus response. In each briefing, a revolving cast of government ministers has been flanked by a scientist sent to reassure us with their slideshow mastery. Chief among them are the drably-suited power couple of scientists: government chief scientific advisor officer Patrick Vallance and the chief medical officer of England, Chris Whitty.


For several months, the government’s focus on science has provided a robust justification – or shield – for policies that no government would usually like to be associated with. But now, with the lockdown easing, it looks like Johnson’s brief but very public love affair with science is starting to turn stale.
At the press conference on June 3, Vallance distanced himself from the government’s plan to quarantine almost all incoming travellers to the UK for 14-days. “The Sage advice from the experts in this area is that the measures like this are most effective when the number of cases is very low, and they’re most effective when they’re applied to countries from higher rates,” Vallance said when asked about this at Wednesday’s press conference. “The judgment of that time is, of course, not something for us, it’s something for politicians to make.”
The number of new cases in the UK at the moment are still far from “very low”. Data from a swab testing survey from the Office for National Statistics suggests that England is still seeing around 5,600 new coronavirus virus cases each day. On June 5 the UK reported 176 new deaths from the disease, while all of the countries in the European Union added together reported only 283 deaths. While coronavirus infections are heading in the right direction – at the end of May the ONS estimated there were 8,000 daily infections in England – we’re still at a much higher rate than much of the rest of the world.
The government is also seemingly happy to contradict its own science-based rules for easing the lockdown. In early May, Johnson unveiled a new five-level coronavirus alert level intended to determine how strictly lockdown measures should be applied in England. Since its unveiling, England has remained at level four, indicating that Covid-19 transmission is still high or rising exponentially and that current social distancing measures should remain in place.


Despite this, England’s social distancing measures have been relaxed. From June 1, groups of six people have been able to meet outdoors in England, with outdoor markets and car showrooms also reopening and other non-essential retail shops set to follow on June 15. All the while, the alert level on the Nando’s scale has remained at level four. (A government spokesperson told WIRED that easing lockdown is a matter for minsters, and the decision would be informed – but not determined – by the current alert level.)
On June 2 The Guardian reported that the government proposed reducing the alert level from four to three, only to be told by the four chief medical officers that the idea was not supported by the scientific evidence. Not so much being led by the science, as shimmying the science along to fall into lockstep with government policy.
And when it comes to contact tracing, the government walked in the opposite direction to the science. From the early stages of the outbreak, the WHO has maintained that testing and tracing infections must be the backbone of a strong coronavirus response. It is no coincidence that the countries that were able to contain their initial peaks – China and South Korea most notably – did so by following a relentless programme of rapid testing and contact tracing.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, the UK’s ability to contact trace has been woefully inadequate. In mid-February, Public Health England only had the capacity to trace five new coronavirus cases each week. By March 12, it had dropped contact tracing in the community altogether. This lack of widespread testing had tragic consequences for care homes, which saw at least 12,526 deaths between March and May. Only in mid-April did health authorities in England routinely start testing patients discharged from hospitals into care homes, something that former government scientific advisor Neil Ferguson admits as a failure in New Scientist’s damning appraisal of the government’s coronavirus response.


So has the government really been led by science? It depends where you look. As any scientist will tell you, people searching for definitive answers from science will inevitably be disappointed. You only need to look at the conflicting advice around face masks, or the flip-flopping around hydroxychloroquine trials to realise that science is rarely an oracle in such quickly-changing circumstances.
But a glance at the number of deaths in the UK will tell you that the country has been getting its coronavirus response badly wrong. The UK has the highest absolute number of excess deaths in Europe, and the second-highest per capita deaths, behind only Spain. It is clear that – in comparison with other countries – the UK was too slow to implement lockdown measures and too willing to give up on contact tracing early in the pandemic.
At the press conference on May 28, after Johnson had blocked Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty from answering a question about their thoughts on the Dominic Cummings scandal, Whitty insisted that science must stay separate from politics. “The desire to not get pulled into politics is far stronger the part of Sir Patrick and me than it is in the prime minister,” he said.
But while the government’s chief scientific advisors have been trying to remain detached from politics, it hasn’t stopped science itself becoming a political football. Since the beginning of the outbreak, the government has maintained it is led by science, while ignoring some of the key scientific principles that may have helped prevent the scale of deaths we have seen. Now, as the lockdown is eased, the government is once again ignoring its own science-based rules when it is convenient. Who is really doing the leading here?
Matt Reynolds is WIRED’s science editor. He tweets from @mattsreynolds1
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