Politicians don’t tend to be scientific, people. In fact, out of the 55 British prime ministers of all time, only one had a remotely scientific degree (Thatcher, who studied chemistry funnily enough). Similarly, only one member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet has a STEM degree. In normal times, nobody would blink an eye at this. However, during a pandemic (an inherently scientific phenomenon), this essentially meant that those in charge knew very little about the nature of the crisis and how to tackle it. And so, power was delegated to scientific experts. Or at least, that’s what was claimed and continues to be claimed.


‘Guided by the Science’

This is the simple idea of basing policy on what the ‘scientific evidence’ demands, and has been the go-to phrase for those in power during the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, from the UK’s Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock to New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, officials have doggedly worshipped this strategy.

And why shouldn’t they! After all, science isn’t like politics (or history, philosophy, literature etc., for that matter) — there is nothing to debate. Science is black and white. An assertion is either right or wrong; there are no ‘two sides of the same coin.’ So, given that scientists are some of the best minds in the world and are therefore extremely unlikely to get things seriously wrong, why wouldn’t politicians take a step back and simply implement policies that the experts’ evidence suggests will best suit the country? Sounds simple enough, right?

Wrong. The idea that policymakers have simply been ‘guided by the science’ is a myth. Or rather, a misleading statement designed to trick people into thinking that politics can be taken out of the pandemic. It can’t. This, just like every other crisis, is deeply political. Here’s why.

Models of chaos

Fundamentally, there is no one science to be guided by. Let’s say I’m the prime minister, sitting at my desk in Downing Street on March 15, 2020. I’m looking at a piece of paper modelled by Imperial College London that predicts if I don’t order the country into lockdown, at least 500,000 people will die, and the NHS will be overwhelmed. However, I’m also staring at a paper showing that if I put 70 million people under house arrest for months, nearly 3,000 will commit suicide, millions will lose their jobs and 12.5 million school and university students will have their education severely disrupted with potentially detrimental consequences on their future.

What do I do?

Now, it is important to stress that science is not limited to epidemiology. The prediction warning me about the dire impact of a potential lockdown is as much a piece of scientific research as is the catastrophic prediction of letting the virus run rampant. The trouble is, these two pieces of science are contradictory in what they advise. Science has got me thus far, but I can no longer rely on science to make a decision.

Instead, I must make a political decision because as the American 20th-century political scientist Harold Lasswell said, politics is about who gets what, when and how. This is exactly what pandemic policy comes down to: as prime minister, I must decide what is worth more: the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, or the jobs, future prospects and mental health of millions? A pretty gruesome choice.

Ultimately, of course, the UK government (and most western administrations for that matter) chose lives over livelihoods. Nowadays, it seems common discourse that this was a no-brainer act of humanitarianism: human life is the most precious thing of all. You can resuscitate someone’s career prospects, but you can’t bring the dead back to life, right? Perhaps that was the only true thinking behind every lockdown, including the present delays to easing restrictions.

But there is another explanation. Let’s not forget that Boris Johnson is a politician, and re-election is to a politician what a host is to a virus: essential for survival. It is difficult to imagine that it never crossed Boris Johnson’s mind that letting the coronavirus run rampant would’ve seen his voting base slashed. A recent study by the New Statesman revealed Jeremy Corbyn would have won the last election were it not for retirees — who also account for most of the deaths from Covid.

No one can know for sure what went through senior politicians’ minds when they decided to lock down the country. The point is that they were not simply ‘guided by the science’ in their decision. Whether humanitarianism or selfishness prevailed, the choice to save lives was a political one.

Don’t be fooled: politicians are and have always been guided by the politics.