The cardinal rule of coronavirus policy is that you must follow “the science”. Or, at the very least, you must say that you are. After the US’s disastrous response to the pandemic, Donald Trump still insists he is “guided by science”. In the UK, Boris Johnson and his ministers always claimed that our own bumbling response was either “led by the science” or “following the science”, even as Britain’s infection rate soared above other countries that were also, in their own words, following the science.
Sometimes it is easy for us to separate out false claims about science from real ones. Early in the crisis, the majority of mainstream scientists, and institutions such as the World Health Organization, supported swift lockdown measures. Trump resisted this approach, instead putting his faith in quack cures that his closest scientific advisers clearly opposed. Johnson has tended to drag his heels, taking the right scientific advice too late, as with lockdown, or making a mess of the execution, as with testing and tracing. Their departures from the sanctified path of science are obvious.
The real trouble occurs when the science itself appears fractured. As we enter a new period of lockdown measures, the British Medical Journal has reported that scientists are divided into “two camps” over how severe restrictions should be. A recent open letter to the government headed by several prominent scientists argued against imposing a general lockdown – which most scientists agree is the best response to a virulent second wave – and instead for measures to be “targeted” at vulnerable populations, letting the rest of us go about our lives as normal.
The letter was widely covered, and two of its signees, Carl Heneghan, head of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University, and Sunetra Gupta, a professor of