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Angela Tilby: Science won’t give certainty

29 May 2020

PA

The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, speaks at a press briefing in Downing Street, last Friday

The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, speaks at a press briefing in Downing Street, last Friday

FROM the start of this pandemic, the Government has promised to “follow the science”. That sounds reassuring, but, as we are beginning to realise, “the science” available to us does not deal in certainties. The mathematically deduced models avail­­­able, which differ according to the question that they are trying to answer, can give only a range of probabilities.

After many hesitations and de­­lays, the Government finally “fol­lowed the science” that warned that the infection rate was exponential and could lead to half a million deaths. Lockdown followed, and in­­fections duly lessened. But there was always an alternative narrative.

Some scientists said that the virus had been around for longer than we realised, and was milder than we realised, and that many of us had already had it. There are critics of the first set of models who assert that they were always too pes­simistic, and that the danger now comes from trash­ing the economy, preventing those with other illnes­ses from getting treatment, and ag­­gravating inequality. The differ­ent models also reflect long­­standing rivalries be­­tween some scientists at the Univer­sity of Oxford and at Imperial College, London.

For all its kudos, science is a very human activity. Academic rivalry and human fallibility are part of the mix. Epidemiology does not at­­tempt exact predictions. The big questions — when and whether to impose rules that involve the sus­pension of civil liberties, how much risk is acceptable — can never truly be answered by science. They are political decisions — and they have to be interpreted.

Fear for ourselves and for others is bound to play a part in how we behave. Some days, I am in the worst-case scenario (no vaccine will be found, there will be repeated spikes of severe infection, social dis­tancing will last for years, we will never go on holiday again, and, yes, that cyclist behind me is breathing Covid down my neck).

On other days, I veer towards the more optimistic view (this will fade away, the numbers could have been much worse, the economy will bounce back, Imperial were wrong about mad cow disease, and, per­haps, they are wrong now; stay in the open air and we’ll all be fine).

It doesn’t help that members of the current Cabinet were appointed for their Brexit credentials, while more experienced politicians were banished; or that the Prime Minister nearly died; or that Dominic Cummings failed to keep the rules as most of us understand them.

The fact is that we are simply un­­used to facing radical uncertainty, and it scares us. Fear makes us angry. But perhaps it should make us less judgemental, more tolerant, and more sympathetic to those whose lives have always hovered on the edge of disaster.

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