I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard our politicians say that their decision-making during this pandemic is being led by the science. As if the decisions that they have made have somehow been inevitable and forced by the nature of the evidence to hand. That is of course rubbish.
All science has competing theories and explanations of phenomena and the natural sciences are no more immune to these debates than the social sciences. This is especially true where scientific knowledge is new and emerging and where the characteristics of something are still unclear. And when you have the kind of situation that we have now, one that requires the bringing together of the natural and the social sciences then the potential for scientific debate and disagreement is enormous, as is the potential for harm.
Today some of us will have stood for a moment to honour the ordinary people who have died doing their jobs during the pandemic. Some of those people will have worked for the NHS, others will have worked in care, or driven buses, or shops or one the many other jobs that we have now come to realise are essential to the proper functioning of our everyday lives and well-being. Many of yesterdays unskilled workers are now angels and heroes, people whose jobs have been made so much more perilous by the actions and failings of others.
Some of those failings were illustrated last night in the BBC Panorama Documentary “Is the Government Failing the NHS?”. The programme raises questions about the range of ways in which the government appears to have failed to protect people working in the NHS – principally as a result of it’s failure to ensure that frontline workers have the equipment that they need in-order to protect them from the virus.
To draw on the wartime analogies that the government seems so fond of. The current situation feels a lot like one of those instances where our troops have been ordered into battle, ill-equipped to take on the enemy that they face. Yet somehow, as has often been the case, our troops manage to achieve some kind of pyrrhic victory or glorious defeat through enormous personal sacrifice. Except now if you believe our politicians, our heroes aren’t being ordered out of the trenches by generals, they are being led by the science.
Which is disingenuous because there is no single scientific solution to the threat that Coronavirus poses. It is politicians who make decisions about which strategies to deploy and how to use the resources that we have at our disposal. You only have to look at the variation in death rates per million population across the world to see the extent to which political and scientific choices can and will kill people.
By the time that this is over it is likely that thousands of ordinary people will have died doing their jobs so that we can stay well, and as is so often the case the politicians and scientists who could have prevented many of their deaths will wrap themselves in the sacrifice and dedication of others and call them heroes.