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Ministers 'pretending' to 'follow science' when it comes to lockdown, expert says

22 May 2020, 19:20

By Ben Kentish

Moves to ease lockdown, including the reopening of schools, are “political decisions” and ministers are simply “pretending” to “follow the science”, a member of the government’s scientific committee has told LBC.

Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said it was “slightly misleading” for ministers to claim that they were simply “following the science” when explaining the basis of major decisions. 

The phrase has been used repeatedly by government ministers in recent weeks, but Prof Edmunds said it was “wrong” to suggest that decisions were being taken by scientists.

The expert modeller said he believed there was scientific basis for a gradual reopening of primary schools but made clear that the responsibility for these decisions lay with politicians.

He told LBC: “When the government comes up with this they are weighing the science advice with all the other advice from other aspects and coming up with a decision – it’s important to understand that.

Professor John Edmunds said ministers are "pretending" to "follow the science"
Professor John Edmunds said ministers are "pretending" to "follow the science". Picture: PA

“There's been quite a lot of 'we're just following the science' - well which science are you following?  Are you following the science of the educational research or are you following the science of the epidemiological research? Which one?”

When asked whether he thought it was unhelpful for ministers to continue to insist that they were simply following the science, he said: ”I just think it can be slightly misleading. Which bit of scientific advice are you picking?

"I'm sure they are, but ultimately these things are political decisions - that's why we put these people in power over us to make these decisions on our behalf.

“It's wrong to say that that's being done by a group of epidemiologists - it just isn't. These are political choices...It’s politicians' job to do that and they are doing that - it's just sometimes they're pretending that they're not and that's they're just sort of ‘following the science’.

"But which aspect of the science are they following at this particular moment?"

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Prof Edmunds says the decision to open up schools are "political decisions"
Prof Edmunds says the decision to open up schools are "political decisions". Picture: PA

Professor Edmunds revealed that the proposal the government has put forward for reopening schools – for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children to return first – was not one of the nine scenarios that were considered by its scientific advisers.

He said the decision on which pupils should return to schools first “is not based on scientific advice per se – it’s based on educational advice”.

Professor Edmunds also said it was “imperative” that a track and trace system was in place before schools reopen.

He said: “At the moment that isn’t in place. We have assurances that that’s going to be in place by the beginning of June but the beginning of June isn’t very far off now, and so it’s really imperative that a good system is in place, is embedded, is working before we do too much in terms of lifting restrictions.”

His comments come amid growing tensions between the government and some of its scientific advisers. These were fuelled earlier in the week when Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, appeared to blame flawed scientific advice for any mistakes made by ministers.

“If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong, I'm not surprised if people will then think we then made a wrong decision,” she told Sky News.

In response, several prominent scientists voiced concerns over suggestions that it was expert advisers rather than government ministers who are responsible for key decisions, but Prof Edmunds’ comments are the strongest yet.

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