Singing Happy Birthday to the Experts

Photo © Thomas Angus, Imperial College London and used under Creative Commons 4.0.

Of course, the Daily Telegraph’s front page scoop that crack epidemic modeller Neil Ferguson broke lockdown rules to visit his paramour is a dead cat story designed to deflect attention from the UK having the worst COVID19 death toll in Europe. The Telegraph has form in trying to destroy Ferguson’s credibility, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a real front page news story, and it doesn’t mean that Ferguson shouldn’t have resigned; in fact, it’s greatly to his credit that he did it quickly.

A whole panoply of liberal and centrist talking heads have defended Ferguson; from Labour politicians Diane Abbott and Professor Mary Creagh, to David Aaronovitch (the sage of Hampstead), public health expert Anthony Costello, and Jolyon Maugham QC. As far as Maugham goes, I can’t help feeling that an eminent silk knew that the resignation wasn’t about Ferguson having an affair with a married woman even while tweeting that it was. About 10,000 people have been fined for lockdown breaches across the UK so far; some will have had far better excuses than Ferguson, but there were no tweets from progressive twitterati demanding they be let off. But for the grace of God, many of us might have gone where Ferguson has, but most of us aren’t instrumental in designing the country’s lockdown rules.

The impression one is left with is of a progressive establishment that doesn’t understand how toxic it is for the rule-makers to be rule breakers during a lockdown which the vast majority are obeying despite increasing financial and emotional hardship. Many in the progressive establishment really do believe it’s OK for there to be one rule for them and another for the normies. This sort of rich liberal hypocrisy has been political dynamite for the populist Right across recent years, across countries and continents.

In any case the Ferguson story will soon be forgotten, while the government’s decisions of the first quarter of 2020 will remain news for years to come. The UK is still going to have the worst death toll in Europe tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the media will come back to it again and again. Perhaps not the Daily Telegraph, which seems to be pursuing the death of many of its readers as a positive contribution to an Englishman’s liberty, but others will.

It is in that context that I can’t see the case for making Ferguson some sort of martyr for science and good public policy. While his later modelling paved the way for a lockdown to eventually be implemented in the UK despite the Prime Minister’s unhelpfully libertarian instincts, his earlier work was instrumental in the deadly period of confusion from 13-23 March, when the UK essentially lost the first battle of the war with COVID19.

You will all, I’m sure, remember the ludicrous phase in March when we were told the way to beat coronavirus was to wash our hands while singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice. That was what the experts were advising. The experts are why the UK locked down late, why the UK never screened incoming flights, why the UK didn’t have any plan for managing COVID19 in nursing homes until it was too late. Experts, like the rest of us, have their blind spots, agendas and ideological obsessions. British experts clung to models developed for pandemic flu, even as the evidence mounted that COVID19 was both more transmissible and more deadly, with significant levels of asymptomatic spread, even as doctors in Italian intensive care units screamed warnings at us via YouTube.

While progressives are keen to blame the politicians for somehow making the scientists give them bad advice, few politicians would dare fly in the face of warnings expressed consistently by large majorities of the memberships of government medical advisory bodies. Few such warnings seem to have been given. Do people who deified the experts during the Brexit referendum campaign really think the government should have overruled them in this case because a Minister saw a retweet of a video by a doctor in Bergamo?

Swedish experts – nice progressive experts who are constitutionally independent of even their nice progressive red-green coalition government – screwed things up even worse, and still claim their strategies are a success despite a galloping death toll that ‘came as a surprise’. The WHO blew the early phase of the pandemic by being too susceptible to political bullying by Beijing.

Experts are vital, but part of the job of politicians is to have the type of judgement that can cut through the agendas and biases that all people can be swayed by. In the case of COVID19 in the UK, experts wedded to unhelpful preconceptions of what a pandemic would look like provided advice that was music to the ears of a government to whom the virus was bad news ideologically. Too few people asked enough hard questions at a sufficiently early stage. The consequence has been tens of thousands of needless deaths.

The people who saved the UK from a far worse fate weren’t, in point of fact, any sort of experts or leaders, but largely the people themselves, who swung heavily behind the concept of a lockdown even as those in power dithered. Public opinion is why a divided cabinet has maintained the lockdown for 44 long days so far. Far from being brainwashed by screeching Fleet Street headlines, support for sacrificing freedoms temporarily to save lives has remained solid in the face of them.

Another great failing of establishment progressives in recent years has been a terror of the people, a fear that underneath it all they’re just desperate to become Nazis and mass murderers or perhaps just eat and drink themselves to early graves. If you believe that politics can make the world a fairer place, then surely you must also believe in some level of innate human goodness, however flawed?

For me, a big COVID19 lesson is to trust people a little more, and to trust politicians of all tribes a little less. As for the experts, the next time they bash me over the head with their fancy academic titles when trying to bully me into something I don’t actually believe, I’m just going to sing Happy Birthday at them.