It has been a year since the fearsome power of the pandemic made itself known, Boris Johnson finally bowed to reality, and Britain tardily entered the first of its official lockdowns. Since then, the virus has claimed more than 120,000 lives and afflicted many with the blight of long Covid.
In a country already riven by partisanship, the last year has deepened divides both personal and political. We all know that the action the government finally, begrudgingly, took was too late to prevent the disastrous first wave. The exact human cost of that delay is uncertain, but the toll has been immense.
Also a year ago around this time, I warned in these pages of what the appalling consequences of that inaction would look like. I wrote too that, rather than the pandemic peaking around Easter, this would be only the first peak in a mountain range. Since I wrote in the early autumn that the UK was caught in a dangerous outbreak of forgetfulness, the country has lost a further 80,000 lives to the virus. As this suggests, little of this was unexpected to people who know about the epidemiology of infectious disease.
Given the scientific consensus even in the spring of 2020, what contributed to the disaster which has led to the UK enduring the worst per capita mortality of any large nation so far? Over the last year Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance have emerged as increasingly trusted and trustworthy figures, capable of more empathy than the politicians while also delivering the facts straight. We need to examine the decisions made by those politicians who claimed to be “following the science”.
The phrase “led by the science” misleads in multiple ways. The first is that it suggests science provides a single thread to guide us through a maze of competing paths of action. “Science” is also not monolithic. Experts can differ somewhat, in good faith, and this is often used unscrupulously to suggest that the facts are not settled (look at climate science). This can also allow cherrypicking. “Taking scientific advice” is not the same as asking a bunch of experts the same question until one of them says something you want to hear.
And then there is uncertainty. A year ago we were not clear on the exact numbers of mild infections, although the initial estimates have held up remarkably well. That uncertainty should not be an excuse for inertia, however: a quick glance at what had happened in Wuhan and was going on in Italy should have been sufficient to focus the mind.
Science is more like a torch in the darkness; it illuminates what lies ahead, but what we then do with that knowledge is our choice. And this goes for politicians just as much as the rest of us. Our elected leaders, not scientists, make decisions, and that is the right way round. The role of the scientific adviser is to say what the consequence is likely to be. Having said this, it has been noticeable that since the autumn, members of the Sage advisory science group have been increasingly vocal, as if they were anxious about being ignored. The goal should be to allow informed decisions, in what is a ghastly optimisation problem full of trade-offs.
For example, think about schools. Children are at minimal risk of severe disease, but can be infected and transmit, even though younger children in particular do so at a lower rate than adults. The public has been divided between those who think this mean schools must be shut under all circumstances, and those who think they should be open under all circumstances.
Both these come with quite dreadful consequences that most people are not willing to confront, either for kids’ education (and poorer children will be the worst affected by far) or for the transmission of the virus through schools that are a hub connecting many different households. Repeating over and over that “schools are safe” does not make it true, unless action is taken to make them so – and transmission in schools was likely crucial in the emergence of the more transmissible and dangerous variant B117 at the end of last year.
That variant bludgeoned the UK in the following months and is now responsible for the majority of all Covid deaths in the country. It also forced the controversial question of whether to prioritise first doses of vaccine and delay the booster, which right now is looking very much like the right decision. Indeed, credit where it is due, the vaccine rollout in the UK has been a real success.
But this misses the point. As the storm clouds gathered in January last year, the former journalist Li Haipeng posted on Weibo about the Chinese government’s slow reaction to the outbreak in Wuhan: “All our stories are the same. They start with the failure of the state and end with its victory.” Not only in China. We must remember the failures, if only to learn from them. This is not the last pandemic we will face.