Far from “following the science,” is Boris Johnson now making it up to suit his pandemic policies?by Philip Ball / September 23, 2020 / Leave a comment
In imposing new rules and restrictions on public behaviour to try to stem the accelerating spread of coronavirus, is the British government still “following the science”? Some of the latest measures—which prime minister Boris Johnson has warned may be in place for up to six months—are puzzling, and many scientists, including some linked to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), have been critical of them. One of the most perplexing is the closure of pubs and bars at 10pm. Where did this come from?
It’s easy enough to understand the thinking. As the evening wears on, people drink more and lose their inhibitions, and social distancing goes out the window. What’s more, the hubbub rises and people talk more loudly, expelling more droplets that could be laden with virus. Best, then, to curtail proceedings before they reach that point, right?
Yet the reasoning falls apart quickly. Every student (at least) knows that if you’re going out for some serious alcohol-fueled socialising within a limited time frame, you just drink faster. I know of no evidence that pubs and bars get any louder after 10pm. And this relatively early closing increases the chance that everyone leaves at the same time, cramming onto buses and trains.
So it’s not at all obvious whether the early closures will have any benefit, nor that they won’t in fact make matters worse. Yet in response to a question in parliament, Johnson said: “What we’ve seen from the evidence is that, alas, the spread of the disease does tend to happen later at night after more alcohol has been consumed.”
That’s a claim of a different order from “We’re doing our best and we think this might help.” It’s an assertion that the pub curfew is science-led and evidence-based. Does such evidence exist? If so, behavioural scientists don’t seem to know of it.
“I am not aware of any evidence of the kind that Johnson claims exists,” says health psychologist Robert West of University College London, a member of the SPI-B group that advises Sage on behavioural science. And he emphasises that the new rule, or the motivation for it, “have not come before [SPI-B], which is something you would have thought would be important if science is going to have any say in the matter.”
Some researchers acknowledge that…