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This is to be on a hiding to nothing

Summary:
It’s entirely reasonable - effective even - to demand that the world be different than it is. We do it ourselves all the time, demanding that greater liberty, more freedom and less government as we do. However, to demand that the world be different than it can be is to be on that proverbial hiding to nothing. Politicians around the world have been promoting responses to the Covid-19 pandemic with statements such as: “we must open up”, “we have to learn to live with the virus”, and “freedom day”. But to us epidemiologists these are almost meaningless political slogans that cover a vast array of possible scenarios, some of which are potentially very harmful, especially for the most vulnerable.The approach of Boris Johnson’s government in the UK provides a particularly egregious example of

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It’s entirely reasonable - effective even - to demand that the world be different than it is. We do it ourselves all the time, demanding that greater liberty, more freedom and less government as we do. However, to demand that the world be different than it can be is to be on that proverbial hiding to nothing.

Politicians around the world have been promoting responses to the Covid-19 pandemic with statements such as: “we must open up”, “we have to learn to live with the virus”, and “freedom day”.

But to us epidemiologists these are almost meaningless political slogans that cover a vast array of possible scenarios, some of which are potentially very harmful, especially for the most vulnerable.

The approach of Boris Johnson’s government in the UK provides a particularly egregious example of how political rhetoric is damaging our ability to discuss pandemic responses in an open and transparent way. Framing our global response to Covid-19 with slogans starts to narrow the range of options in ways that may stifle thoughtful discussion of alternatives.

Things that are politically decided will be decided by politics. Which means the deployment of political rhetoric. That’s just how any such system will work because that’s how the mechanism being employed does work.

It will never be possible to have “scientific” decisions from the political system. Nor will it be possible to jury rig matters so that we do.

The very best that it is possible to do is to get government out of the decision cycle upon scientific matters thereby allowing the room for science to take place.

No, we do not therefore mean that there should have been no political decisions about Covid. Given those events there clearly was going to be more than the one political decision - to do nothing would have been one of those, as would doing anything. The point is, rather, that once something has been subsumed into the political decision making process then it is politics - along with that rhetoric - which will make the decisions.

Our favourite example of this is the, possibly apocryphal, story of Jim Callaghan and the steel plants. The science, the business logic, insisted that the British steel industry needed to be operating at scale. There are economies of such in this industry. So much so that the UK could only have a usefully effective steel industry if it had the one large and fully integrated plant. This logic was accepted in what was at the time a nationalised industry.

At which point half the single integrated plant was allocated to Wales and half to Scotland. For, obviously, political reasons.

Anything run by politics will be run by politics - why is that so hard to grasp?

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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