15 March 2020

Coronavirus, Piers Morgan and the limits of expertise


It’s fair to say the Government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has not been met with universal approval. Why aren’t the schools closed? Why aren’t all public events banned? Why aren’t we copying the Italians or the South Koreans and Getting A Grip On Things?

Chief among the critics has been TV presenter Piers Morgan, for whom any given news event is simply a scaffold on which to hoist his blokey Common Sense persona. This week it’s been all about why the UK has not followed other countries in implementing strict social distancing. To understand just what that means, read John Hulsman’s chilling report this week from inside Italy’s quarantine zone.

It’s fun to lambast the likes of Morgan, who goes out of his way to wind people up, but he’s popular because he represents a significant strand of British public opinion.

And you can see why his criticisms resonate. The approach so far seems highly counter-intuitive. We know the disease is here, so surely it makes sense to shut ourselves away and stop it spreading? Yet here is the Prime Minister saying as many as 60% of the population could get the disease. Only then, the reasoning goes, will enough people be immune to prevent later spikes in infection once the quarantine phase of the response is over. This may, indeed, be the problem countries like Italy face – once their draconian measures are lifted, the disease may simply reappear, potentially with even more victims than the first wave.

That has given rise to a suggestion that the Government actually wants people to get ill, whereas they are actually predicating their strategy on the assumption people will get ill whatever they do, and it’s best to manage it as best as possible – a subtle but crucial distinction.

Another difficulty for the Government is that its response involves several stages, which it’s easy to paint as vacillation rather than an attempt at precision. This is not a situation where there is a phalanx of all-purpose ‘experts’ who can plot what measures to take and how people will react to them. Indeed, even among epidemiologists there is clearly sincere disagreement about whether the UK is taking the right course.

Nor is ‘expertise’ something to be simply uncorked at will. A virologist knows a lot about viruses, but might not know as much about food supply systems, NHS funding, logistics and the thousand other moving parts the Government has to take into account. What ministers are trying to do is synthesise lots of different areas of expertise into a coherent response.

That’s also why today’s letter from 229 scientists questioning the UK strategy is not all it seems. It sounds an impressive number of signatories, but it turns out none is a leading figure in a relevant field. Being a scientist in any discipline does not, surely, confer authority to speak about anything remotely scientific.

Meanwhile, on the political front Labour have responded maturely, raising legitimate questions about how low-paid workers will cope with a shutdown, but not tearing strips off the Government’s overall approach for the sake of it.

There are too many causes for concern to list, but most pressing is whether the NHS has capacity to deal with the extra patients it will need to treat. Even if we do manage to ‘flatten the curve’, it looks as though a whole suite of special measures will be needed – there are now reports that hotels could be requisitioned to provide extra beds, just adding to the sense that we are living through a wartime situation.

Where might we end up after all this is done? You can guess about the death toll, or speculate about longer term changes to British society, but guessing is all you would be doing.

In the words of Graham Medley, the remarkably humble Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling who appeared on Newsnight this week:  “Anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen over the next six months is lying.”

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX