Ministers vs scientists, economy vs health

By Tim Le Couilliard, Public Affairs

There have been numerous mantras throughout this pandemic – “stay at home”, “protect the NHS”, “Hands, Face, Space”, and so on. For a while, we could not watch a government briefing without hearing the pledge “we are following the science.” It appears, however, that is now over. The government has spent the day firefighting following a tension-filled press conference last night, and the sensational publication of documents by SAGE. For the first time, it is now publicly clear (when before it was only implied) that there is a divide between the scientists’ views, and the policymakers’. 

Last night, moments after the press conference, SAGE published numerous documents that revealed the group had given advice to the government that there should be a “circuit-break” lockdown back in September in an attempt to stem the rise in cases of coronavirus. This, as the minutes from a meeting on the 21st September record, was rejected by the government, with the implication that the economy is increasingly becoming the policy priority. It is notable that several cabinet ministers have been discreetly briefing the media that should there be further trouble with the policy, then Chancellor Rishi Sunak, will be blamed or praised (depending on your outlook) as responsible for the policy of protecting the economy. 

This is on top of a frosty coronavirus press conference last night, with a clear divide between the Prime Minister and his Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty. The CMO did little to show support for Johnson’s new “three-tier lockdown” strategy – stating that while it will “help”, he was “not confident” the base level of restrictions in “very high” alert areas would be enough to get on top of the virus, and encouraged local leaders to go further. 

This, as well as the dramatically timed release of the incendiary SAGE documents has, naturally, dominated the media today, with many leading with Whitty’s comments on the tiered strategy, rather than the strategy itself. There is also discontent amongst the Conservative backbenchers, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock directly calling out those in his party who are lockdown sceptics – the government is coming under fire from both angles – “damned if they do, damned if they don’t…!”

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick had the unenviable task today of going out to bat for the government in the morning broadcast round. Jenrick described the government’s actions as “robust” but “balanced” in response to the SAGE advice of stronger lockdowns, and members of his own party’s calls for less. 

It is worth noting, most, bordering on all, independent polls have implied a greater public support for stronger lockdown measures. 

We may well be witnessing the moment in this pandemic where the divergence between the science and the politics go beyond the tipping point.  The internal battle between HM Treasury and the Department for Health and Social Care may well be shifting in a similar way to the battle between the government and the scientists. It will be interesting to see if we see fewer appearances of the scientists at ongoing press conferences, or even if the government has separate press conferences for the advice and the policy.

In the last few moments, Labour Leader Keir Starmer has hosted his own news briefing in which he adds his voice to those calling for a so-called circuit breaker lockdown, unsurprisingly.

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