One charitable interpretation of partygate would be that it was discovered by Downing Street, that its covid rules were not workable. The alternative is that those making the rules never had any intention of following them, and hence never experienced the confusion and contradictions caused by shouting ‘Hands! Face! Space!’, while simultaneously refusing to share available evidence on how transmission work.
It is kind, but it still raises the question of why the government demanded that the public follow such rules and then watched them being inconsistently enforced in a confused police force. Why did the Cabinet Office consider such an autoritarian approach to Covid communications necessary? Despite the public interest in all data and information, it continued its efforts to reduce the complexity of a pandemic to simple messages and strict rules.
This might ensure compliance in the short term, but for a global pandemic it quickly fails to meet societies needs, and hampers people’s ability to respond. This is the clear conclusion of the What Counts Scoping Inquiry. It spent six months interviewing people trying to make rules work in their sector. They tried to fit the square pegs of simple laws and ambiguous guidance into all the holes left by existing legislation.
Explaining policies and the evidence behind them is not just a peace-time nice to have – it is essential for society to function, and never more so that in a crisis. People cannot apply rules and policies in many different settings that are not within the government’s purview if they don’t know the reasons. Many thousands were faced with difficult choices: whether to comply or to face prosecution for trying support others. Individuals and departments were faced with conflicting rules regarding Covid and the requirements to provide essential care. They made different trade-offs, resulting in a postcode lottery for social services.
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The most unacceptable thing is the active suppression or misunderstanding of information, which can lead to societal harm and confusion. For example, the government kept insisting that Covid didn’t discriminate even though it was obvious that the risks for infection and death were strongly age-related. This prevented society making balanced decisions that would have protected the most vulnerable and lessened the harmful effects of restrictions on children. And the slogan ‘Hands, Face, Space’ continued to be promoted long after sounds science had shown that ventilation was far more important than preventing surface transmission.
Hiding behind the simple slogans and claims to be ‘following the science’ was government’s failure to set out its values and priorities. This made it difficult to understand what people were supposed to achieve. However, this ignores the fact that policy makers make policy decisions, and not scientists. For example, because modelling scenarios did not include the harm done by closing schools, they could never come up with an ‘optimal’ strategy that kept children in school. Models and data can tell you the likely outcomes of different decisions, and what is practical, but don’t define what is ethical right or moral.
The government should empower society, not just provide instruction. It must be competent, transparent, and reflexive if it wants people to implement policies and make well-reasoned judgments in society.
Tracey Brown is Director of Sense about Science, A charity independent of the government that promotes sound science and evidence.
What Counts A scoping inquiry into how well the government’s evidence for Covid-19 decisions served society You can download it at: https://senseaboutscience.org/what-counts/.