It’s convenient for leaders to say they are following the science, but technical evidence can only take us so far
On the Andrew Marr Show last Sunday, speaking about Covid-19, Prof Neil Ferguson was described as being “more influential right now than any politician”. Ferguson leads a team of modellers at Imperial College London whose mission has been to predict the pattern and health impact of coronavirus transmission in the UK under different scenarios, and thereby help government make the right decisions about how best to protect the population.
The UK has some of the best infectious disease modellers in the world, and the government has been wise to draw upon their expertise. But all models have their limitations, and none can avoid the fact that decision-making must also be informed by people with relevant expertise and experience, and by the facts on the ground.
In the case of Covid-19, where so much about the disease and its transmission dynamics is still unknown or unclear, models are useful – but experience and sound judgment are crucial.
This is becoming apparent across the world. Countries that lived through the experience of Sars and Mers appear to have been better prepared to deal with Covid-19 than those that didn’t. And in Canada, the success of British Columbia in controlling Covid-19 compared with other provinces has been partly attributable to the combined ingredients of political experience and good judgment.
There is also a non-scientific element to decision-making which involves choosing between competing demands and needs in society, determining what is ethical and moral, and balancing challenges that are current and immediate with those that will only emerge in the future. For example, a model that incorporates value judgments is needed to balance the direct, visible and dramatic harms of Covid-19 with the more indirect, chronic and hidden social and economic harms of lockdown.
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