Not to do so would be an insult to the public and the ideal of evidence-based policymakingby Philip Ball / May 26, 2020 / Leave a comment
When the coronavirus pandemic began to grip the UK in early March, I was not alone in taking heart at what seemed to be the quality of scientific advice that the government could expect to receive. It seemed fortunate happenstance that not only was the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Chris Whitty a specialist in infectious diseases who had been active in the Ebola outbreak, but that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) Patrick Vallance had years of experience in public health as president of R&D at the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. I knew of Vallance’s reputation as a smart and eloquent spokesperson for scientific health management, and very early on in the crisis I was given a ringing endorsement of Whitty from a leading epidemiologist, who assured me that he was not the sort of person to yield to bluster from the likes of Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings.
But serious questions about that are now being asked by some scientists, and the scandal around Cummings’s lockdown road trip may be seen as a crucial test of the credibility of the duo leading the effort to bring scientific rigour and probity to the government’s pandemic strategy. Johnson’s unwavering support for his adviser, who ignored lockdown rules by leaving his house and taking his wife Mary Wakefield and his child 260 miles to his parents’ farm estate in Durham while she had suspected Covid-19 symptoms, has elicited a breadth of condemnation unprecedented in recent times: not just from the usual suspects but from several Tory MPs (one of whom, Douglas Ross, has resigned his ministerial position in the Scotland Office in response), religious leaders, Piers Morgan and the Daily Mail. It looks as though Johnson has finally achieved his stated aim of unifying the country across the political spectrum, albeit with an act so egregious that it beggars belief.
But there has been not a word on the matter from the CMO or GCSA. You might want to say that this is a political matter on which it is not their role to comment. But that would be entirely wrong. The affair goes to the very heart of the government’s mantra of having been “led by the science”—by making a mockery of it. Nothing it has done has undermined…