Are we being led by the science?

Well, that’s what we are told at the daily press conference, but is it true?

It’s becoming evident that the 2-metre social distancing rule is exceedingly problematic if it’s to be continued once businesses re-open, particularly for small cafes, restaurants and shops which are too small to implement it and will cease to be viable. So, the evidence to support it must be very strong, mustn’t it?

I have not been able to find that evidence anywhere, and significantly the WHO has settled on a much more pragmatic, achievable and sustainable one-metre distance. I made a few more discreet enquiries yesterday, and the answer came back that ‘there is no evidence’.

Does Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and SAGE know something we don’t?  – we certainly hope so, but if this secret society does not publish its membership and meeting minutes how can we trust the government to have taken their advice seriously, rather than manipulated it, particularly now we know who else attends these meetings.

I suspect that a discussion amongst colleagues around possible everyday simple measures has somehow morphed into ‘science’ somewhere between the SAGE committee room and the ministerial podium. If that had happened, even by mistake rather than by design, or in the panic of early March when the government was clearly way behind the curve, we need to know. They could just say ‘sorry; we got that wrong.’

We already know the government has form on speaking ‘truths’ which are anything but, and are certainly not beyond sacrificing a few experts to gain political advantage for their own ideology, in fact, it’s been an integral part of their strategy recently. Do the rules of SAGE allow participants to make corrections when their advice has been misinterpreted? – have the scientists got the courage to call out inaccuracies?

Remember that excruciating ‘disinfectant’ interview last week from the USA? The president’s chief medical adviser sitting close by squirmed but did not dare speak to correct him, that’s dangerous. If the chief medical adviser was there and didn’t say anything, then it must be true, mustn’t it? – so back to the three podia at the daily press conference.

* Catherine Royce is a medical doctor and was previously PPC for Uxbridge (2001) and Romsey (2017). She is currently a member of the Federal Policy Committee.

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  • Peter Martin 29th Apr '20 - 9:21am

    @ Catherine,

    I think you’re looking at this slightly the wrong way. There’s nothing special about 2 meters. Virus transmission is still possible. But, obviously, if everyone keeps 2 metres away from each other the transmission rate will be less than if they only keep 1 metre apart. But, not as good as if they keep 3 meters apart.

    There are other factors, too, such as the effectiveness of the ventilation and wind speed if people are out in the open.

    So, in the end its just what is considered reasonable and enough to keep the reproductive rate of the virus to less than 1. That’s all it can be.

  • There seems to be an add belief in certain quarters that there is some kind of “scientifically correct known answer” to every question. As Peter Martin points out this is simply not the case, every situation will cause massive differences in the “right” answer. 2 meters is obviously a figure to make people understand that they should stand an unnaturally large distance from each other.

    The WHO can not be seen as an authority at this point and should not be deified because it is an international body and liberals tend to be internationalist. It has clearly been fundamentally compromised and will need to be cleared out at the top once things settle down.

    There is a lot of scientific information out there and people should try to engage with it as much as they can. There are some good issues in here but they seem mixed up with some unhelpful assumptions.

  • Christine Headley 29th Apr '20 - 10:36am

    At 2 meters you are keeping the worried well apart. If an infected person coughs at 2 meters, you are still going to get splattered because the virus makes sure it is expelled with force. Much of this is a ‘we must do something, this is something, we must do it’. The trouble is, we don’t know what is effective and what just makes us feel better. Backing this up with testing would help, as would contact-tracing, but they couldn’t be bothered when that would have been manageable, and the genie is well out of the bottle now. Cancelling the races at Cheltenham would have been an excellent idea. That was an awful lot of people close together who then redistributed themselves over a wide area.

  • Richard Underhill 29th Apr '20 - 10:54am

    Peter Martin 29th Apr ’20 – 9:21am
    FSPeople 29th Apr ’20 – 10:32am
    Mike Pence should comply with the rules of the hospital he visited.
    He is often in close proximity to the President.

  • James Fowler 29th Apr '20 - 11:07am

    Agreed. Science is being presented as an impartial and unanimous voice when it is nothing of the sort. This is not science’s fault. There is too little data to offer unanimous views at present. Eventually, I trust science (more than anything else) to offer a valid and reliable explanation of what is going on, and from that offer rationalised and credible advice endorsed by a clear majority of experts. That time is not yet. The issue with impartiality is harder. At the moment, scientists are governing the narrative and they are public health experts. Note that public health does not draw on the best clinicians – they become consultants. More importantly, now that we have ‘nationlised’ the consequences and responses to the virus, all aspects of society deserve a proportionate say on what is best to do. It is not just a clinical or scientific problem anymore.

  • Simon McGrath 29th Apr '20 - 11:35am

    “We already know the government has form on speaking ‘truths’ which are anything but, and are certainly not beyond sacrificing a few experts to gain political advantage for their own ideology, in fact, it’s been an integral part of their strategy recently”

    Catherine – which experts have been sacrificed ?

  • Regarding Truth/Science…Yesterday Gove stated that…”The stockpile that we had before this pandemic was explicitly designed in accordance with the advice from the scientific advisers the government has ”

    But didn’t these same scientific advisers state, after the Cygnus exercise, that the NHS was woefully short of PPE? Their subsequent demand for more was refused by the then minister (Jeremy Hunt) on cost grounds..

    It seems that either Mr. Gove has a short memory or that his definition of ‘Scientific Adviser’ is rather selective?

  • Peter Martin 29th Apr '20 - 11:48am

    @ Christian,

    “…… once it is finished, which will be very soon.”

    I hope you’re right but I’m expecting you won’t be. The lock-down rules, imperfect and as “unscientific” as many might think they have been, have succeeded reasonably well in preventing the Covid outbreak getting out of hand. The pressure is now on the Govt to relax the restrictions.

    The problem is that at least 95% of the population won’t have any immunity, if such immunity indeed exists. Relaxed restrictions will mean more infections. So we’re, at best, about 10% of the way along our “journey”. We could have to multiply the current death total, which is at least 25,000 if we add in non-hospital deaths, by a factor of ten before we can say we have “finished”.

  • The virus should not be expelled with force in the general population because those with obvious symptoms should be at home, those with no symptoms by definition will not be coughing out virus with force, thus the safe distance rule of one or two metres is probably ok. Someone with a harsh cough would hopefully be ejected from indoor situations and avoided by the general populace, if not questioned by the police. In reality, keeping as much space as possible but not getting closer than one metre is probably what is happening at the moment. It works to a limited extent but I don’t think it will completely eradicate the virus.

  • When you are investigating the unknown, by definition you do not know what you will find.
    Decent scientific method involves looking at a phenomenon, formulating a hypothesis (or several hypotheses), testing them against reality (which may be developing all the time), discarding those which don’t match the facts (which are being discovered/unearthed as you go along, continually refining, challenging and improving or discarding the remaining hypotheses until, usually after some time, you end up with something which (most) scientists generally agree is the best explanation for the phenomenon given what has now become the available knowledge base.

    In other words – a lot of science is pretty fluid. That doesn’t stop it being science, and it doesn’t stop scientists holding different opinions about the same phenomenon at a particular point in time.

    So when looking at something as new as Covid19, scientists have evidence from the known behaviour of other less-new viruses (but they are not Covid19), and they have the information about Covid19 which is coming to light day-by-day (but which is necessarily incomplete). It is hardly surprising that there are different hypotheses and different recommended courses of action, none of which at this stage are definitely wrong – or right. Except, possibly, doing nothing at all – and even that, with the benefit of hindsight, might turn out to have had its plus points.

  • If it is anywhere near 100,000 deaths then probably could have just told the over-65’s to stay at home, locked down the care-homes and got the same result as closing the country down.

  • Margaret 29th Apr ’20 – 12:17pm……………So when looking at something as new as Covid19, scientists have evidence from the known behaviour of other less-new viruses (but they are not Covid19), and they have the information about Covid19 which is coming to light day-by-day (but which is necessarily incomplete). It is hardly surprising that there are different hypotheses and different recommended courses of action, none of which at this stage are definitely wrong – or right. Except, possibly, doing nothing at all – and even that, with the benefit of hindsight, might turn out to have had its plus points………….

    It’s a pandemic..It doesn’t matter if it’s flu or the Black Death…The basic steps to decide on effective actions are the same…..determine the cause and means of transmission, test for infection, search for vaccine/cure, etc.
    Regarding Covid19 all these factors were known last year..

    The kindest thing that can be said about this governments handling is that, like the Morcambe/ Previn sketch “the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”.,,,

  • Paul Barker 29th Apr '20 - 2:47pm

    After adjusting for different size of populations, it looks like the British Death Rate will be about 100 Times that of New Zealand.
    Even within Europe German & Austrian Death Rates are massively lower than ours.
    Those differences are down to one thing essentially, the Quality of the respective Governments.

    At some point we should be shouting about this.

  • Peter Watson 29th Apr '20 - 2:50pm

    @Catherine Royce “Professor David Nutt , Dr David Kelly to name the two most high profile cases.”
    Neither of those seem relevant to this government, so when you wrote “the government has form …”, perhaps you should instead have written “governments have form …” because the rest of your article (so possibly Simon McGrath’s question) seems to be specifically about Boris Johnson et al.

    Apart from attacking the Government for its missteps during a time when I’m sure very few of us would want the responsibilities of those making decisions on our behalves, this article, like so many others on LDV, leaves me none the wiser about what exactly Lib Dems would have done differently at the time those decisions were being made.

  • Tony Greaves 29th Apr '20 - 4:23pm

    We can never know that because we were not there. The job of opposition parties is to probe, criticise, put forward alternatives for testing against what is happening, and most of all to expose incompetence. This is the most incompetent government I have known in my life, at best a collection of third team reserves. I wish we were saying so rather more clearly.

  • We know that sneezing can project droplets for several metres. It is also possible for tiny droplets to remain suspended in air (as an aerosol) for hours or to circulate around a room depending on the air currents. So to be very safe, stay at home.

    Two metres means that infected people will not be breathing in your face and provided they sneeze into a tissue as instructed, you might be ok. If you want to fill a tea shop with people each half a metre apart, for example, I would prefer to go elsewhere. People have an element of choice.

    We are all responsible for our own safety and for giving others the benefit of the recommended guidelines. The experts are not superhuman, but they do their best. I think it is inappropriate to assume political foul play and bad faith. The politicians and the experts have a very demanding task and are working very long hours. I’m glad I’m not involved.

  • The government science seems extremely flexible …

    Regarding testing arrivals….Today Priti Patel…”We are not similar to those countries, in terms of travellers and passenger flows. It’s a fact that the UK has one of the largest numbers of international arrivals, very different flows to some of the countries mentioned. That is a key consideration of Sage”
    This is the EXACT OPPOSITE of what was said last week..Then we were assured that the small numbers arriving in the UK had a negligible impact on the spread of the virus ..

    Regarding” ….This is the most incompetent government I have known in my life, at best a collection of third team reserves. I wish we were saying so rather more clearly……

    Hear, hear!…What is obvious is that the government are rolling our ‘expendable’ junior ministers at interviews..As for Victoria Atkins (Safeguarding minister)?? If she, and others, are an example of ‘depth of expertise’ then it shows that this government “hasn’t got a clue”..
    If I attended any meeting, with as little preparation, my termination letter would’ve been waiting on my ex-desk when I got back ..

  • We are supposed to be our country’s liberal party, and should surely be bigging up the Swedish approach.

  • The big problem here is the lack of openness and open discussion.

    If we can accept that “the science” isn’t hard facts but an ongoing discussion, why can the official discussion not take place openly? Of course there will be disagreements on the science, the data is incomplete and changing every day, but this is then all the more reason for the different views to be public and discussed before the decisions are made.

    If the government want the country to be in agreement with and follow whatever the proposed advice is for each stage of undoing the lock down, then they would be better placed if the public were, if not involved, at least informed of the scientific discussions being had.

    The delay to publish anything to do with SAGE until after the pandemic is over inspires neither confidence nor trust.

  • A balancing act if ever I saw one. Ideally we would all self isolate with all food delivered. We need more information to make rational decisions. If anyone with a new cough self isolates immediately with adequate backup resources the risk should be manageable. We need immediate testing to make self isolation credible. All restaurant workers and similar staff should have regular testing unless shown to be immune.

  • Robin Bennett 30th Apr '20 - 12:36pm

    When the UK Government said it was following “the science” whomever they consulted seem to have discounted the evidence from South Korea and Taiwan, two democracies which had learned lessons from their experience of SARS and MERS. Was there no virologist or epidemiologist with knowledge of these countries’ preparations for early travel bans, contact tracing, PPE and testing? If there was, why were they not given a proper hearing in the discussions?

  • Sue Sutherland 30th Apr '20 - 1:19pm

    The government seems to be abandoning existing best practice in order to fit the circumstances. One case is that of checking up on children in care which Mark Valladares highlights in a previous post. The other is Public Health England downgrading PPE requirements.
    If dealing with the pandemic means that responsibilities can’t be met then this should be out in the open with regular review dates. NHS staff have, quite rightly, complained loudly and clearly about the lack of PPE but who is going to do the same for the children?

  • @John Hall ” I seriously doubt that there was one opinion from “the” Science.”

    In this case “the science” was the Imperial College mathematical model that was relied uppon by Government to make their lockdown decisions. My spouse, who understands this field very well, has told me that (i) IC have not released the equations underpinning their model to allow other mathematicians to evaluate their methodology, and (ii) such equations are very sensitive to small changes which is why its important for this model to be scrutinised independently.

    See also this article for a fuller discussion of the issues.

  • TCO is right. The science provides very crude estimates. Models of spread rates depend on estimates of how many new victims are produced by a single infected person. Consider yourself to be the infected person, how many people are you likely to infect in the week between first hosting the virus and showing symptoms?

    It depends on your job, your social life and all sorts of things. It is much easier under lockdown when there are fewer variables but still there is a huge range of possibilities with an A&E nurse in central London having much higher risk than a self isolating single person living at home.

    So how confident are you in the models that make assumptions about transfer rates and a multitude of other factors and apply them to large populations? Models have their uses but the uncertainties are massive.

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