Professor Sir Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical officer, must be thanking his lucky stars that he isn’t Anthony Fauci, his much-maligned equivalent in the USA, who stood down at the end of last year.
Even so, beside that, I have been reading in Town & Country Planning – the excellent journal of the TCPA, which I had the honour to serve as editor in the late-1980s – all about what Whitty said at their annual conference at the end of last year.
He was talking about a few reflections of the lockdowns since 2020, and he said this:
“In health, we realised a few decades ago [that] all of what we were doing was wrong. Now we base what we do on evidence…
”In government, that hasn’t happened. People think they are doing good with no evidence.”
Quite so, and it is good to have someone from government confirm it. How many, wondered TCPA chair Andrew Pritchard, of the “numerous planning reforms of the last 10-15 years had been based on sound evidence – as opposed to ‘received wisdom’, expediency or political ideology.”
Yet that is still a little too glib for me. I have been wondering whether there was a middle way here, between evidence and ideology. Because, all too often, the term ‘sound evidence’ is actually what specific professions or organisations deem it to be.
Michael Gove was battered for what he said during the Brexit campaign about people having had “enough of experts”.
I have been wondering whether he meant something along these lines.
I said something like this in my book Tickbox and have been roundly criticised for doing so.
Yet so often what passes for expertise these days is actually the result of a kind of blinkered and ideological training (take economists for example). Or sometimes a kind of self-referential pseudo-expertise which actually goes little further than how to make things happen in the current bureaucracy (social workers, perhaps?).
During the pandemic, we were expected to listen to one kind of health expert – health statisticians and vaccinations creators. But not, for example, to psychology experts (about the consequences of putting masks on young children), or naturopaths (who weren’t as keen on vaccinations as they might have been).
The truth is that, now we have access to the world’s knowledge online, we have to choose what kind of expertise we will listen to at what time – just as ministers have to.
There is no point in parading through the streets with a banner that says ‘listen to the science’, when it isn’t clear whose science they are talking about.
So are we back to square one then? Do we make decisions based on what we feel like that day or not?
To be honest, I don’t know. We can hardly have a campaign these days for real expertise. Or can we?
Before we work out what that might mean, there are a couple of things governments could do which would help.
First, if they were able to publish the evidence they have used to base their decisions on in a much clearer and more logical way.
Second, it would also help, of course, if they handed over many more decisions to local people – they are the real experts in what people really need locally. Because they know from personal experience.