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The government and its experts aren't asking themselves the right questions before they restrict our fundamental freedoms

Wider scientific advice and further parliamentary involvement can improve our response to Covid-19, writes Steve Baker MP | PA Images

6 min read

Scientists respond to incentives like everyone else – we must not confuse or terrify the public by speaking about Covid risk as if it is certain, and allow it to limit people's liberties with no scrutiny from Parliament

I do not doubt the good will of the scientists involved in our coronavirus response or the moral intentions and good faith of the government in acting on their advice. The past months have been incredibly difficult for our country. The government and ministers worked extremely hard to ensure the public have been protected and supported during the coronavirus outbreak. It is time though for the government to widen how it formulates our response to Covid.

To start, we need a better system of expert influence on our social policy. Pandemic policy making has been asking the impossible of scientists, economists and politicians. There are solutions and they are fundamental to the success of a free society in an era of accelerating complexity and change. There is a structural problem rooted in the division of labour which, when combined with bad incentives, causes inevitable failures of expert advice. The problems are acute, delicate, dangerous and long-standing. They do not arise from faulty expertise or bad actors.

Scientists must not confuse or terrify the public by speaking about risk as if they are speaking about certainty

I recently wrote to the Prime Minister, providing a brief developed with Professor Roger Koppl of Syracuse University and author of “Expert Failure”. I highlighted that scientists are just like everyone else in that they respond to incentives. Even the scientific and impartial mind cannot ignore the responsibilities on their shoulders. Scientists have incentives to predict high risks even when they are not certain these risks may come true. If an epidemiologist predicts a high death rate and that the only way to reduce this is through more restrictive measures or through a lockdown, then however many people die, it can always be said it would have been worse without the measures they suggested. In doing so, scientists are not bad actors, but merely human. This is not to say we should not follow the advice of experts, but we need competing expert groups with different independent expert opinions included on critical policy. Similarly, we need to ensure that complementary fields are brought together to give a complete perspective. We also need to employ ‘red teams’ to challenge the prevailing expert opinion. This may not lead to different actions to the government’s measures, but it would ensure these had much stronger foundations.

Alongside how expert-led policy is formulated, we must also be concerned with how it is communicated. At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the reported risk of dying from coronavirus was much higher than we understand it now. It was not clear how quickly it could spread through the population, how different age groups transmitted the virus or how the virus might change according to how we treated it. Even now, we do not have anything near complete knowledge on these issues. As Dr Raghib Ali, an epidemiologist and consultant in acute medicine, pointed out in a recent article on how we should respond to coronavirus, the science is still highly uncertain and the effectiveness of different strategies in different countries provides conflicting evidence about the best response. When scientists speak of the risks of coronavirus, they do not speak of their certainty of these risks. We must be aware of both risk and certainty: scientists must not confuse or terrify the public by speaking about risk as if they are speaking about certainty. 

As Dr Ali’s article highlighted, the government must be better at asking itself questions about its own response: how good is the evidence that certain forms of intervention work? Is it clear that making restrictions mandatory makes a significant difference to compliance in comparison with social harms? Has it sufficiently taken into account the other harms that restrictions cause in terms of health, quality of life and jobs? I am not providing the answers to these questions, but the government must ask themselves these questions as they implement policies restricting our fundamental freedoms.

In no other circumstances would MPs surrender their influence over such important measures

However bad our predicament though, we are not in as bad a situation as earlier this year. Deaths and hospitalisations are not spiralling, the NHS can cope with the increased pressures and the government does not have to make decisions on coronavirus that must be implemented within hours. For this reason, not only do we need to widen how our science-led policy is formulated, but we must also widen how the government makes and legitimises decisions in response to coronavirus, not least because the government’s decisions affect our fundamental liberties.

As my colleague, Sir Graham Brady, recently explained: ministers have had the ability effectively to rule by decree over the past months. While we all appreciate this may have been necessary early on to allow the government to take swift action, it is clear we are in a much better position now. Of the over 247 pieces of relevant secondary legislation – including the national and local lockdowns – fewer than 5% have been subject to express parliamentary approval prior to their implementation. It is extraordinary. In no other circumstances would MPs surrender their influence over such important measures.

I am supporting Sir Graham Brady’s amendment to the renewal of the powers under the Coronavirus Act. It would provide Parliament with the opportunity to debate and approve coronavirus related measures of major national effect. As demonstrated by the Labour MPs who have also put their names to the amendment, this is not an internal Conservative Party issue but an issue of ensuring Parliament can authorise government's response to coronavirus. The current situation is incredibly difficult for ministers. We know the weight of responsibility that rests on their shoulders: we are asking for them to share that responsibility with Parliament. Coronavirus-related measures would no longer rely on the accountability of a specific minister or the Prime Minister but also the will of Parliament. This can only provide greater public support and therefore compliance for new coronavirus measures.

Our current situation is incredibly serious. Calling for wider scientific advice and further parliamentary involvement is not a call against the government implementing significant measures to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. It is a suggestion for how we can better improve our response and ensure it is both proportionate and effective.


Steve Baker is Conservative MP for Wycombe

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