08/03/2021. London, United Kingdom. Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds the Coronavirus press conference with Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer in 10 Downing Street, London. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Science and politics under a pandemic


In a global pandemic, the government has taken responsibility for protecting the nation. Unfortunately, a global pandemic is not a matter where the government are the best people to decide how best to achieve this task. Because of this the government must, to quote Boris himself, “follow the science.’”

And yet science is not all that must be juggled; economic issues and trade, and personal popularity complicate just who is making the decisions in Downing Street. Especially in a time where we are verging on the widening of our freedoms – and the widespread of a new threatening variant – what is going to happen on the 21st June is becoming increasingly complex.

The emphasis of ‘science’ leading the government – whatever that might actually mean – has been enthusiastically showcased throughout the pandemic. Anyone in the UK will remember the presence of figures such as Chris Whitty in the Covid-19 updates, talking us through complicated graphs and data, backing up Boris’ speeches. The government’s attitude at first glance seemed to follow Matt Damon in The Martian: they were going to “science the shit” out of the pandemic. The virus was something that we could beat if we threw every technology, every bit of scientific advice, and all advanced research at it.

 At least, this was the attitude the government tried to portray. Deeper, the relationship between scientific advisors and the government is a tense mixture of different goals and priorities.

Early in the pandemic, as recent reports claim, the government’s stance was one of inaction; “let the bodies pile high” said Boris allegedly, as he disregarded the true danger of the pandemic.

A tense mixture of different goals and priorities

Indeed, this response was not one of scientific life-saving, rather of politics. It was a response of not wanting to be blamed for a lockdown where it wasn’t needed, and wanting to maintain a strong economy. In the face of scientific advice to lock down – not just in the UK, but continentally – the government therefore hesitated. This was, tragically, to enormous and devastating cost. Fundamentally, the government is largely comprised not of scientific experts, but political people-pleasers.

Indeed, that is the nature of a democratically elected government: keeping people on side is essential to keep votes and power. Although certainly the two go hand in hand, following the science and keeping political popularity are not necessarily the same thing. Lockdowns are difficult and unpopular, even when we acknowledge their necessity.

This rather uncomfortable tension leaves us in a difficult position in the days before 21st June. Once again we have a battle of scientific advice and other interests: the rise of a new variant spreading quickly has led to calls by some scientific advisors to halt the reopening. Simultaneously, large proportions of the nation are waiting with bated breath for the bars, clubs, and holidays to begin again. This is not to paint a dichotomy where there isn’t one: some Brits would prefer another lockdown, and some scientists equally think one is not needed. However, there is certainly a tension between what many people want and what will save lives.

Scientific ignorance does not seem to be damning their popularity

To add even more intricacies to the debate, the recent Conservative local election results show not a popular turn away from the government in light of questionably scientific moves, but increased support. The question of the relevancy of scientific advisors is thus thrown even more into uncertainty; the scientific ignorance of the government does not, at least at the moment, seem to be damning their popularity. In this difficulty of conflicting interests, the scientific advisors calculate the risk, but it is the government who must take that chance.

Image: Boris Johnson Coronavirus Press Conference via Flickr

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