Is our Government doing enough to contain COVID-19? As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the UK approaches 800, with a further 5-10,000 people estimated to be infected, concern about the government’s handling of the crisis is coming under increased scrutiny.
To date opposition Labour MPs as well as scientists not in the employ of government have, by-and-large, gone along with the government’s advice, based as it is on the chief scientific adviser’s advice. But a number of concerns are now being voiced about the government’s strategy, especially in terms of not cancelling large gatherings.
Listening to constituents, friends, family and fellow MPs discuss the rights and wrongs of the government’s approach to date, it’s clear we’re all pretty much second guessing what should be done.
Therefore, in an attempt to work out what our approach should be I spoke to Professor Paul Hunter from the University of East Anglia. He’s currently on the World Health Organisation’s expert advisory panel for Infection, Prevention and Control Preparedness, Readiness and Response to COVID-19
(Bio here: https://people.uea.ac.uk/paul_hunter)
Here was Paul’s take:
▪️ The first stage of the outbreak i.e. it’s ‘containment and delay’ phase has been managed very well and is reflected in the relatively slow start of the epidemic compared to other neighbouring countries. This was however the ‘easy bit’.
▪️ We’re now entering a new phase and the reason we’re struggling to work out how best respond is because it’s not something we’ve encountered before. We’re short of good examples of how it worked in the past. The SARS outbreak was similar and for the first month we treated this like a slightly more contagious variant of SARS.
▪️ I had expected to see slightly more rigorous measures this week including school closures. But the Chief Scientific Officer is saying their advice is based on the science. If so he’s right and I’m wrong. However, it’s very difficult to work out what the science is they’re working to and how robust it is?
▪️ We therefore need greater transparency of the data to allow for wider peer review. That allows a wider group of scientists from a variety of disciplines to repeatedly tear down, then build back up the models in use. That’s how good science works. But we’re not seeing the data or the models and we therefore don’t know how reliable they are. That worries me.
▪️ Transparency of the data and models in use is therefore crucial.
When MPs come back to Parliament next week, demanding better COVID-19 data and modelling transparency from the government should be a key demand. Both good science and government should not operate in an opaque bunker. The scientists around the government will no doubt be some of the very best. But their data and modelling should be shared with a wider pool of scientists. This will allow us to utilise a wider pool of expertise, develop alternative models and would allow scientists around the world to learn from the UK’s experience. It would also allow Opposition MPs to better scrutinise, where necessary and support where possible, the government’s decisions now and in the future. There’s a reason appropriate transparency in our democracy is a good idea, and this is clearly one of them.
Update: Gordon Brown is correct to point out there are values at stake in how we respond to this crisis: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/13/coronavirus-crisis-leaders-failing-gordon-brown?CMP=Share_iOSApp_
Other Populist nationalism vs social internationalism is a real dividing line here. The former approach of self-interest, authoritarianism and opaque practices will make dealing successfully with this pandemic more likely to fail. Meanwhile cooperation, openness and transparency will increase our chances of steering, at a national and global level, the optimum course through this crisis. Values, which not surprisingly, are the same ones that will enable us to better handle the coming global challenges of the 21st century: the climate crisis, AI, and surveillance capitalism, to name but a few.
Labour must therefore apply these values, values at its core, when holding the government to account on its handling of COVID-19 and so many other crisis’ that we know are coming our way.