Expertise and policy

Of all the people to be locked down with, I’m really happy it’s with my family. That’s not just because we all get on with each other very well, but also because my wife is a health psychologist.

That means we’ve had lots of discussions about coronavirus, looking at it from very different perspectives and considering how you integrate that in terms of policy.

Plus it’s been really good to have something to replace the (extremely mild) symptoms of Brexit-withdrawal.

Central in this has been how we have skirted around the issue of expertise in public policy.

Brexit was the bonfire of the experts, where to have a knowledge grounded in study or professional experience was to taint and compromise, rather than to enrich and enlighten. With its core narrative of ‘the will of the people’, pure righteousness carried vastly more weight than any rational consideration of the evidence.

Some of the edges might have come off that now, but that has been more because the standard-bearers of ‘getting Brexit done’ seem unable to work out how to actually do that, so the strength of their attack has diminished. If you want an illustration of how far there is to go on that, just look at the discussion about extending transition.

And then: coronavirus.

This isn’t about the will of the people, but about Saving Lives [sic]. The scope to bullshit one’s way through a health emergency is very much smaller than it is for something that can be presented as a political choice (although that’s not stopped some ‘very clever people’ from trying).

Covid-19 is almost the perfect antithesis of Brexit in this regard. What happens is driven very fundamentally by the science, with huge impacts on personal liberties, both moral and practical. A slow-down in the medium-term growth of UK GDP relative to a non-withdrawal? Pah! How about a 10-15% contraction of the global economy, right now?

Yes, this is force majeur in full effect, but it also speaks to the possibility of a wider return to evidence-led policy-making. In this pandemic, the virus doesn’t actually care whether you’re talking down efforts to fight it, but it does get affected by your actions.

This is not without difficulties.

Most obviously, the science on coronavirus is evolving fast. The efficacy of different policy responses can largely only be extrapolated from other infections and other situations and the (still very small) data from current sites. The balance of clinical, epidemiological and virological advice bumps up against behavioural insights, economic modelling and the sheer practical constraints of turning all of this into effects on the ground.

The language that accompanies this is crucial, and I am struck by the care that is taken in the daily briefings to mix the nuances of the evidence-as-we-have-it with the core messaging on staying at home, protecting the NHS and saving lives. In this early phase, that has broadly worked, but the challenge will come in time, especially as advice changes and restrictions are lifted or softened. Science is always conditional and always subject to revision, but that sits uneasily with the (pseudo-)certainties of political rhetoric.

When this passes, there will be much discussion about it all, both in specific and wider terms. Did we make the right choices? Did we say the right things? Who dropped the ball?

Here is the biggest challenge. Already we can see the relative judgements being weighed up: this country did that, why aren’t we? You promised you’d sort this out, why haven’t you?

The answers to those questions will shape the UK just as much as Brexit has in the years to come, so we might usefully start to think about that now, while we have some little time on our hands.

Now go wash your hands.