Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.
“We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts” – Harold Macmillan
The public are rightly concerned. Daily, they are warned of disaster. “Coronavirus is deadly and it is now spreading exponentially in the UK,” said Matt Hancock last week. No wonder poll after poll shows consistent public support for stricter measures, even as the economy tanks and mental health sinks.
The omniscient SAGE has spoken. The Government drags along. The language of fear cows the public. Cases soar. Truly, we have fallen down for the divine right of experts.
But this is not working. We need experts and expertise, but we must beware of experts with counterproductive incentives, and of the structural problem of the division of expertise among fields and individuals.
Ministers and experts have worked hard in good faith, but the pandemic has asked the impossible of them. We must not blindly follow whatever strategy is put forward by scientists with a monopoly on advice. We now know that SAGE has suggested another national lockdown, but calling it a “circuit breaker” cannot make it costless. The immense economic, social and non-Coronavirus health damage that the first lockdown caused means that we cannot allow another.
Many of the problems we are experiencing boil down to fundamental issues in how we use experts to inform social policy. We need a better system of expert influence on social policy without tearing down the edifice, but we must avoid the monopoly rule of experts. Thankfully, there is a literature of expert failure showing how government can more safely and effectively take advice.
Scientists respond to incentives like everyone one. Pressures bear on even the most sober, scientific and impartial person. Knowledge in a pandemic is incomplete and uncertain. Suppose an epidemiologist provides the Prime Minister with a low estimate of the number of deaths, and there is no lockdown. Perhaps there are many more deaths than predicted. The epidemiologist will be blamed as a bad scientist. Shame and guilt will follow: a bad outcome.
Suppose our expert provides a high number and there is lockdown. However many people die, it can always be said it would have been worse without lockdown. A high estimate therefore implies credit for saving lives. Praise, pride and innocence follow: a good outcome.
Expert failure also arises when incentives create uniformity of opinion. Professionals earn livings from the official recognition of their profession’s knowledge, enforcing orthodoxy. We think experts do not disagree over “the science” so we are quick to follow their advice.
Moreover, all experts only give a partial perspective. We must recognise that epidemiologists are not economists, GPs, mental health practitioners, cancer specialists or social workers. Their narrow expertise must be complemented, and not at the ministerial level.
Furthermore, since the start of the outbreak, scientists, politicians and the media have treated untested and uncertain theories as certain. When scientists speak of the risks of coronavirus, they do not speak of certain knowledge. Risk is not certainty – as Professor Neil Ferguson’s now infamous record of predictions illustrates. Confusing the two is damaging.
Government expert advice requires four important reforms.
First, we must simulate a market for expert advice using competing expert groups in the same field.
Second, ministers should require three independent expert opinions on critical policy.
Third, the partial perspective of experts should be exposed by bringing together complementary fields.
Finally, employing “red teams” (advocati diaboli) is a good way to challenge and test prevailing expert opinion.
Meanwhile, a Department of Health and Social Care report has shown the lockdown leading to more cancer deaths, deteriorating mental health and many other social harms that can make the cure worse than the disease.
Breast Cancer Now has estimated that around 986,000 women have missed mammograms in the UK after screening services were paused because of coronavirus. The charity has also estimated that around 8,600 women could be living with undetected breast cancer.
Earlier this month, 66 GPs wrote to the Health Secretary to urge him to consider non-Coronavirus harms and deaths with equal standing beside coronavirus deaths. This complex optimisation problem of saving the most lives deserves more public debate.
Dr Raghib Ali, an epidemiologist and consultant in acute medicine, recently highlighted on this site that lockdowns can need to be repeated until a vaccine or fully effective treatment is found. They postpone rather than prevent infection, and a vaccine may not come.
Even if it does, it may not be as effective as people hope. A vaccine may take longer to be rolled out than people wish. No wonder in response to my question last week on when the vulnerable may be vaccinated, the Prime Minister stated that he cannot say by when he expects a vaccine to be produced. He admitted that a vaccine may never come.
But the Government’s strategy remains to supress the virus until vaccination. That has petrified sections of our economy, propped up by £745 billion of quantitative easing and ultra-cheap credit. In evidence to the Treasury Select Committee, the Bank of England has made it clear that such extraordinary monetary policy is only possible because of the independence of the Monetary Policy Committee, and that it is not its job to fund government.
The implication is clear: if inflation were to rise above target, then the Bank would have to act under its mandate. With QE at about the level of Government borrowing today, that could have the effect of pulling the plug on public spending.
The Government’s finances and our broader economy are in a precarious position. Even without an inflation, such extraordinary monetary policy is bound to create misallocation of resources: the longer we prop up our economy like this, the deeper the distortions and the longer and harder our economic recovery will be.
The economy is, of course, closely related to the health of the nation: poverty shortens lives. That’s why Ministers must move now to reform the structure of expert advice, publish serious analysis of the costs of the options they face and prepare for plan B. It is time for Conservatives to relieve experts of unreasonable burdens and reject a second national lockdown.