In this morning’s Times of London there’s a very reasonable-sounding editorial (or “leading article” as it’s called in Britain) headed “Honest Mistakes” which purports to instruct Boris Johnson, the prime minister, that admitting to the mistakes made by himself and his colleagues in government could only win back some of the trust of the people which, so the Times editorialist is kind enough to tell him, the government has lost on account of those mistakes. My own trust is that the Prime Minister is smart enough not to believe a word of it.
I’m not too worried. He must know that the media culture in Britain today, as in the United States, is both so adversarial in its approach to the government and so geared to report scandal almost exclusively in its political coverage that any Conservative prime minister foolish enough to admit to mistakes would be sure to regret it. Such an admission would be sure to be reported as politically disastrous to the government and a triumph for the media, which will be bound to have pointed them out first.
And this is all quite apart from the fact that the biggest mistake made by the British as by the American government—the blanket and economy-wrecking lockdown for the sake of the fraction-of-a-percent of sufferers, most of them with co-morbidities, who will die of the disease—is considered by the media to be not a mistake at all. Two days earlier, the point was made more lucidly and more persuasively than I have seen it made before in The Times’s sister paper (with which it shares a website), The Sunday Times, by a former justice of the (U.K.) Supreme Court, Jonathan Sumption.
The lesson of COVID-19 is brutally simple and applies generally to public regulation. Free people make mistakes and willingly take risks. If we hold politicians responsible for everything that goes wrong, they will take away our liberty so that nothing can go wrong. They will do this not for our protection against risk, but for their own protection against criticism. . . .
Today, the lockdown is only about shielding us from the risk of infection. This raises serious questions about our relationship with the state. It is our business, not the state’s, to say what risks we will take with our own health. We are not fools or children needing to be told by ministers what is good for us, and forced by police officers to do it. . . .
So how has the government ended up in this unsustainable position? The answer is that, having originally embarked on a sensible policy that would have avoided a lockdown, it did a 180-degree turn on the afternoon of March 23, without thinking of the wider implications. It was in a blind panic provoked by Professor Neil Ferguson’s “reasonable worst case” of 510,000 deaths. Quite apart from the fact that a worst case is by definition an unlikely one, few scientists now support this figure. But it has had disastrous consequences. It pushed the government into making a decision that mocks our humanity and treats us all as mere tools of government policy.
What, I wonder, would be the Times editorialist’s reaction to any admission of that mistake? Well, there’s a hint in today’s Times in a front-page headline hinting at scandal against a government minister who tried to explain its mistakes by claiming that, as has been its defense against blame all along, it was only following “the science.”
Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, was asked if the government was prepared to admit that in “hindsight” it had made mistakes, particularly over the spread of the virus in care homes. She told Sky News: “You can only make judgments and decisions based on the information and advice that you have at the time.
“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 added: “We are getting advice from the scientists. It is for ministers to decide on policy.
“We have tried to take, every step of the way, making sure that we listen to the science, understand the science, and make decisions based on that.”
No, no say the Times reporters: you can’t blame “the science”:
She made the comments after the incoming head of the Royal Society told The Times that ministers should stop saying “we are simply doing what the scientists tell us.” Sir Adrian Smith said that the “extraordinary amounts of uncertainty” with new viruses had been played down in a political environment where ministers felt they needed to appear decisive. He said that any backlash over the handling of the outbreak would not be aimed at the scientists because politicians made the decisions.
Quelle surprise! Though the scientists who are followed and the media who follow them slavishly would both regard it as scandalous if the government did not, likewise, “follow the science,” they also wish to hold “the science” immune from blame if following it leads to disaster. Could there be a better illustration of the accuracy of Lord Sumption’s criticism of the government? Or a clearer demonstration of the power of the press to intimidate politicians, not into admitting mistakes but into making them in the first place? For that is what happens when your top priority shifts, as that of governments throughout the world has shifted, from protecting people to avoiding scandal.