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The autocratic virus

Image: Cubankite, via Shutterstock

Boris Johnson has wrecked the relationship between science and government, says William Cullerne Bown

Coronavirus found the UK in political turmoil. Politics is always messy, but this was different. It was not just policy that was changing, but the character of our politics.

Enormous as it was, Brexit on 31 January was only part of a bigger picture. In the previous months, 10 Downing Street had denigrated parliament by unlawfully suspending it, undermined the judiciary when it intervened, destabilised the BBC by threatening its licence fee, decoupled policymaking from the ‘blob’ of the civil service and, amid a general enfeebling of the cabinet, ousted a chancellor who insisted on choosing his own advisers.

All these undermined rival sources of power. Constitutional boundaries were respected even as they were tested, but the dynamic to centralise power in Number 10 was clear. Its signature image was Dominic Cummings with his shirt hanging out, his scruffiness a mark of contempt for everyone else in the room.

Every prime minister has an inner circle. What was changing was how this circle related to the rest of the state. The autonomy of any constraining source of power lying outside the circle was to be questioned and, if necessary, undermined. Call it the autocratic impulse—a dynamic that is clear even if its ultimate aims are not. 

This impulse has two sides. The more power the centre has, the easier it is for it to reorient the state in pursuit of its own ends and trade in patronage. At the same time, constant friction with ‘the establishment’ distracts from the ordinary question of whether the government is making things better or worse. Politics becomes a permanent campaign in which the government is always engaged in attack politics.

If I had to explain British politics today to a Martian I would start with the prime minister at the centre. Around him there is not the cabinet or the civil service, but a court in which access is prized above all else.

The autocratic impulse can be seen in many countries, including Donald Trump’s United States, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Narendra Modi’s India, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Andrzej Duda’s Poland. In a more mature and unconstrained form, it can also be found in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in China, where
Xi Jinping looks ever more like an emperor, and in the kleptocracies of Africa. 

Power grab

In the UK, Johnson’s moves followed decades of systematic centralisation. Local authorities are notoriously weak and in England regional government is largely absent. In research, the dismantling of government research institutes such as the National Engineering Laboratory in the 1980s and 90s was a kind of centralisation. Substantial institutions with their own staff, budgets, premises and agendas were closed. Their function as a source of advice shifted to a web of ad hoc arrangements with individual universities and academics. 

In the National Health Service, the old regional health authorities, which had big budgets and clout to match, gave way to health providers. These have responsibility without power, tasked with delivering tightly defined objectives set by the centre. 

When we talk about Covid-19 and the relation between science and government, we must recognise that in many democracies, including the UK, the government is not a stable, familiar entity but in a process of transformation. An early casualty in this transformation is reason, itself a kind of constraint. Policy need no longer be stable or internally coherent. It need not rely on evidence. Transparency and scrutiny are rejected as liable to lead to defensive politics. 

Science is just one of many kinds of reason that falls by the wayside. Worse, on a symbolic level, science is a kind of threat to this type of politics. If reason and evidence are essential to government, the incoherent populism of a Trump, Johnson or Bolsonaro becomes untenable, as does the fiat of Putin and the hegemony of the Communist Party of China. 

In the UK, reason fell by the wayside during the Brexit campaign. This is a much broader and more fundamental shift than simply a willingness to sometimes say things you know are not true. It is the adoption of a way of thinking in which truth is barely relevant at all.

Governments do not know everything. No leader, or their circle, can grasp all the responsibilities of a modern state. Yet governments wedded to the autocratic impulse turn this understandable human limitation into a state-wide incomprehension. 

In this centralised but chaotic arrangement, nothing truly new can happen without passing through the court. Trust, in which an institution such as a centre for disease control can act autonomously or lead decision-making, is an alien concept. 

The result is indecision and delay not only at the centre but throughout the machinery of the state. Meanwhile, as awareness of a problem, or a decision on what to do about it, works its way through the layers of intimacy and ignorance in the court, the seriousness or urgency of the issue must always be denied.

The same applies to international relations. There are myriad technical committees in hundreds of domains, whose job is to sift through scientific evidence so there is a solid starting point for negotiations between countries. The World Trade Organisation’s committee on sanitary and phytosanitary measures is one example. But this only makes sense in a rules-based international order, and rules are problematic for the autocratic impulse.

Blind eye

So much for the theory. How does this apply to the history of the Covid-19 pandemic? 

Management of a new disease falls into three phases. First, it erupts somewhere and the world must rely on the response in that country. Second, the World Health Organization (WHO) coordinates global expertise to assess the threat. Third, if it spreads,
each country must make its own decisions.

China notified the WHO of the new disease on 30 December, but a Harvard Medical School study, which looked at web searches of symptoms and satellite images of Wuhan’s hospital car parks, suggests the epidemic was underway in August 2019. 

For five months the Communist Party failed to comprehend the threat. Whistleblowers such as ophthalmologist Li Wenliang were disciplined by police. Beijing prevented a WHO team travelling to Wuhan. These are the classic responses of an autocratic regime, and they cost the world the opportunity to contain the virus at source.

The Taiwanese government says it also sent the WHO an alarming briefing at the end of December reporting that medical staff in Wuhan were being infected, thus showing human-to-human transmission. But China has excluded Taiwan from WHO membership and it was apparently ignored. In mid-January, a WHO tweet said that China had found no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, elected with Chinese support, had chosen not to confront what is now one of the world’s superpowers. It was not until 30 January that the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern, its highest level of formal warning, and not until 11 March that Ghebreyesus labelled Covid-19 a pandemic. The WHO was following, not leading.

The WHO’s public health experts like to say epidemics must be tackled early and hard, even if the effect such an approach will have is uncertain. But the organisation’s own actions prevented this. Time was lost out of apparent deference to an increasingly autocratic world order. The rise of China is part of that, but so is the decline of American reason. 

The US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has been the de facto second centre of global pandemic control throughout my lifetime, but it has been compromised by US-China rivalry and undermined by the Trump administration. It failed to provide an effective counterweight to Beijing in Ghebreyesus’ deliberations and it failed to provide the leadership that once came naturally.

Ad hoc

The corrosive effects of decades of centralisation in the UK can be seen in the confused institutional arrangements that awaited the virus. The WHO’s UK counterpart is Public Health England, which employs 5,000 or so staff, mostly scientists, and can draw on counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its mission is “to protect and improve the nation’s health”.

But the central role in assessing the threat of Covid-19 and devising a response to it instead fell to Sage, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. As now applies to almost all forms of scientific advice to government, Sage’s expertise resides primarily in universities. It is not an institution in the mould of the CDC or PHE. It is not even a committee, with a defined and accountable membership and a modicum of autonomy and power—although it has moved in that direction over the course of the crisis. Rather, Sage and its subcommittees have an ad hoc cast of experts—who may be picked up and discarded at will—and non-experts such as Cummings who can apparently attend whenever they like.

Clearly, Sage can channel scientific advice to the government. But at a higher level its job is not to formulate its own questions, but to answer questions asked by the centre. Indeed, it does not exist until called into being by the centre, which in the case of Covid-19 was mid-January. 

It is argued that Sage’s fluidity is a strength, allowing it to rapidly pull in expertise as required. That may be true. It is not obvious that the UK’s most talented epidemiologists and immunologists would want to work for a UK CDC even if one existed. But brilliance is not everything. Far more important is an effective channel of communication between science and elected politicians, so that in a crisis the state can grasp the issues and make effective decisions quickly. 

As things stand, however, the structure of UK science advice means communication is informal and highly personalised. What advice gets to who, and what is done about it, relies not on institutions with roles but people with relationships. 

That reflects the UK’s hyper-centralised culture, but also makes science advice acutely vulnerable to autocratic failings. Awkward evidence or views can be steered out of the picture, ultimately by simply ceasing to request advice from a problematic scientist—no one even needs to be sacked. In an emergency, time is lost because, despite the chief scientific adviser’s vaunted ‘challenge function’, no one has the authority to challenge the power of the court or bypass its layers of intimacy and ignorance.

Looming disaster

In the first months of 2020, the UK needed competent politics, not attack politics. Understanding in the scientific arm of government did not create urgency in the executive arm. The country missed the opportunity to limit the epidemic to isolated outbreaks that could be tracked down and snuffed out, and failed to provide adequate testing infrastructure and supplies of personal protective equipment. 

One of the Sage advisers, the epidemiologist John Edmunds, has said it “was clear from the beginning” that, left unchecked, the virus would trigger an overwhelming epidemic that the NHS was nowhere near being able to cope with.

By 12 March, the only question was how the government would ameliorate a threat that Edmund’s team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimated could lead to 380,000 deaths and at its peak require 220,000 intensive care beds in a country that at that point had around 4,500.

Johnson’s speech on that day was a chance to show that the structures set up to liaise between government and science were providing the bare minimum required of them—the capacity to take decisions. But the speech showed the opposite. The chaos and confusion of 12 March, and its catastrophic ramifications, show both the failure of those structures and the hallmarks of the autocratic impulse.

Material in the public domain shows that at that point Cobra, the most senior UK committee in which ministers met with scientists, had two steps in mind: containment followed by delay. How to delay the outbreak’s spread had been under discussion for weeks. On 26 February, for example, Sage identified four non-pharmaceutical interventions that together would be expected to flatten the curve. 

On 9 March, another Sage document defined ‘delay’ as involving “a combination of individual home isolation of symptomatic cases, household isolation and social distancing of the over 70s”. These measures, it was calculated, would reduce peak demand for hospital beds by 50-70 per cent and deaths by 35-50 per cent. 

Such steps were presumably in the minds of Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, and David Halpern, who leads both the Behavioural Insights Team and a Sage subgroup, when they made their now notorious remarks about “herd immunity”. As long as vulnerable people were shielded in the short term, the spread of immunity in the rest of the population would protect them in the long term. 

Instead, on 12 March Johnson announced a move to the delay phase without implementing the measures that had been discussed. The autocratic impulse had led to a failure to comprehend the threat of the virus, and a consequent inability to act. 

Denial and delay

That delay has cost us dear. To protect hospitals, the epidemic was allowed to rip through care homes, where staff were unprotected and largely untested, and residents sometimes returned from hospital untested and contagious. April alone saw about 18,000 more deaths in care homes in England and Wales than usual. The curve was flattened, but the vulnerable were not protected.

Two other points are worth noting. First, Halpern and Vallance were surely expecting something different from Johnson’s 12 March announcement. This suggests that, whatever the formal arrangements—the papers, Cobra, Sage and its subcommittees—the decisions were made by Johnson and his court, and without troubling to inform
the scientists. 

Second, while Johnson justified his position in the language of science, the position itself floated free of any previous discussion. Science in Johnson’s hands became simply another talking point. 

Once the commitment to reason is gone, it is difficult to escape the suspicion that any invocation of reason is a matter of convenience, a rhetorical instrument deployed tactically. It’s a suspicion for which Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has provided ample evidence.

All three stages of the pandemic response—by China, the WHO and the UK—have been undermined by hyper-centralisation, insufficient reason, incomprehension, denials and delays. Those pursuing the autocratic impulse like to paint themselves as dynamic and decisive, but Covid-19 has revealed the sclerotic reality. Hyper-centralised governments lack speed, flexibility and adaptability, and are incapable of basing their thinking on evidence. 

Like the autocratic impulse, science has its own dynamic. It is open. Done right, it has a pitiless gaze that can rip apart political rhetoric. And its logic may lead anywhere. 

There is no way to fix the broken relationship between science and politics in countries like the UK because their politics is fundamentally antagonistic to the unquenchable autonomy of science itself. Vallance cannot be to Johnson what David King was to Tony Blair—still less what Winston Churchill’s scientists were to him—because Johnson’s politics are fundamentally different to those of Blair and Churchill.


This is not about left and right. None of this was a problem for Margaret Thatcher, who initiated a groundbreaking public health campaign to control the HIV epidemic. Some right-wing governments, such as Australia’s, have managed the first phase of Covid-19 well.

The UK, in contrast, seems like the Soviet Union pre-Gorbachev. We have hyper-centralised structures, rigid decision-making, a failure of the centre to acknowledge the reality of a multi-national state, and boosterism in the domestic media at odds with obvious decline. These have combined with a cultural civil war imported from the US and a touching and uniquely British faith in the capacity of a few brilliant minds to rescue the country from any crisis. 

I’ve been thinking recently about Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of the Day, set in the run-up to the Second World War. In one scene the American Lewis says of Lord Darlington: “He is an amateur and international affairs today are no longer for gentlemen amateurs.” 

In the 30 years since the book’s publication, British amateurism has not been eradicated. On the contrary, it has become ever more entrenched at the heart of government. Celebrating it is part of Johnson’s shtick.

No one resigned after 12 March. Edmunds, Halpern, Vallance and the other highly professional scientists involved in the disastrous Covid-19 campaign have allowed themselves to be subordinated to the amateur court at Number 10, just as Ishiguro’s central character, the butler Stevens, subordinates himself to the hopelessly inadequate Darlington. When it is all over, will they come to reflect, as he does, that when it serves amateurism, duty is not enough, that the time they were given, they squandered?

 William Cullerne Bown is the founder and former proprietor of Research Professional

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight