Our scientists were given responsibility in the pandemic but no public accountability

LAST week, Rishi Sunak rehashed old wounds and stirred up more controversy over lockdowns during the height of the pandemic. The former Chancellor now says scientists were given too much power, where policy choices should have rested with those elected policy makers known as our leaders. 

Unlike most other government policies, there was little cost-benefit analysis done. This is not for lack of information – there were a handful of distinguished economists publishing this analysis of lockdowns.

Bob Rowthorn, former head of the Cambridge economics department, was one. David Miles of Imperial, former member of the Monetary Policy Committee and now a member of the Office for Budget Responsibility, was another. 

Their conclusions were unequivocal. The economic costs of lockdown far exceeded the benefits.  

We might reasonably wonder why the then-Chancellor did not raise these reports with his colleagues or instruct the Treasury to carry out its own cost-benefit analysis.

Nonetheless, Sunak’s refocusing of how we examine lockdowns in hindsight should be integral to the inquiry.

When it was initially set up, many supposed it would be to discover whether the government had been tardy in imposing lockdown – not on whether lockdown was justified. 

A particular issue raised by Sunak is the role played by Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser to the government during the pandemic. Vallance now faces questions over how dissent raised in meetings was handled – and if, as Sunak alleges, any criticism of lockdowns was left out of minutes given to ministers making decisions. 

The projections of the number of cases and deaths made by the epidemiologists were in general grossly over-pessimistic. One figure presented by Vallance – that deaths  could rise to 4,000 a day – was judged to be so implausible that it earned a rebuke from the official statistics watchdog, the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA).

The epidemiologists reporting to Vallance do not seem to have been required to follow the guidelines on computational modelling issued  by the body which Vallance himself headed – the Government Office for Science. 

Blackett Reviews are expert-led, independent studies designed to inform policymakers across the whole of government about scientific and technological questions. In 2018, the year Vallance took over GoS, the body published a 100 page Blackett Review on computational modelling – the activity epidemiologists relied on.

A key point made in the report is that models designed for one purpose may not always be suitable for another. Yet the forecast of 510,000 deaths made in March 2020 by the Imperial College team was based around a code written well over a decade ago, for a model designed to predict the much better understood disease of flu.

The Blackett review also stresses the need to convey very clearly to policy makers the assumptions underlying any model-based prediction. Throughout, the epidemiologists assumed that the public would not change their behaviour in light of the pandemic – the one assumption which was certain to be wrong.  And the assumption does not seem to have been made transparent to the cabinet at the time.

Why did Vallance not ensure that the epidemiological modellers met the scientific guidelines published by his own department? This, and more, need to be added to the list of questions which Rishi Sunak has posed of the government’s chief scientist during the pandemic.

As published in City AM Wednesday 31st August 2022
Paul Ormerod
Image: Flickr

Share this post