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  • Hannah McHugh

Should government or health experts decide Covid19 policy? The case for depoliticization

Updated: Apr 6


“Guided by the science”! ”data not dates”! The UK government’s slogans have emphasised the importance of scientific advisors in developing a response to the unfolding pandemic. Why then, did the government launch the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme – which drove infection rates up between 8% and 17% - considered “epidemiologically illiterate”[1] by experts? Why also, did the government ignore its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE)’s calls for a circuit breaker lockdown in September 2020[2]? And why, in the face of advice, was there a persisting “save Christmas” narrative in December, even when this meant half of all Covid19 deaths occurred in the two months of December 2020 and January 2021[3]?


Democratic government, elected to represent the will of the people, is supposed to act upon principled reasons related to the common good. The common good refers to, in Rousseau’s terms, not the individual or particularistic motives of any one politician or group, but an impartial concern for a population’s ‘common preservation, and the general welfare’[4]. The plurality of interests that a people hold, which justly contribute to democratic deliberation, include more than only scientific advice, or public health concerns. Economic incentives (such as allowing businesses to operate) are of course meaningful components of good deliberation. It is therefore perfectly possible that a democratic government could balance these competing reasons, and choose to pursue a pandemic response strategy that differs from the recommendation of health experts and epidemiologists. However, expected electoral gains and politicians’ political calculations should not be considered as valid reasons that contribute to determining policy strategies. If government makes choices on the basis of what will benefit them electorally, rather than on the basis of what is in the interest of the population as a whole – for instance by favouring specific sectors or groups likely to prop up their poll position – then these choices are liable to run contrary to the common good.


In combatting the pandemic, one thing scientists have clearly emphasised, is that a long-term strategy is needed. However, government will always face short-term electoral incentives to ease restrictions as quickly as possible. Or indeed, not to adopt stricter measures when the situation requires them. The reactive nature of this government might be in part explained by their will to appeal to those on whom they depend for electoral support, and to retain their popularity, even in the face of their ostensible commitment to being guided by science.


This problem is continuing to unfold. Consider the pressure this government will face in the coming months. Having begun with the chiming slogan of “data not dates”, Johnson has proceeded to announce a list of dates for the easing of lockdown[5]. The electoral pressure to honour this timetable is mounting and will bear heavily in the thinking of Conservatives. Should we be concerned then, that if the science does not support the calendar, the government will refuse to back down?


We may therefore ask a question that at first sounds extraordinary: is there a case here for depoliticising democracy? The standard view is that, in the words of Thatcher’s famous maxim, “advisors advise, and ministers decide”. Yet, when policies require long-term commitments, which are at odds with electoral incentives, there is another model to be explored: delegation to independent agencies.


A lesson from central banking


It is not unprecedented that governments, like Ulysses, may need to have its hands tied to the mast of its commitments. In the post-WW2 period, the power of governments (who then controlled monetary policy) to manipulate inflation in order to appeal to electoral incentives led to economic whiplash. The connection between the rate of inflation and the rate of unemployment (the “Phillips Curve”), together with the ability of Chancellors to increase demand in the economy (the amount consumers are willing to spend) through inflationary changes became evidently problematic. This created incentives for governments, immediately prior to elections, to tamper with inflation in order to increase employment. Reliably, immediately after an election, the economy suffered. What is key here, is that price stability demands long-term decisions, and these are hampered by politicians’ short-term incentives. The answer? The creation of independent central banks. These independent agencies were established to ensure a target rate of inflation, to make interest rate policy independent of government of the day and to provide a regime of price stability.


While politicians are motivated by a system of accountability rooted in their desire for electoral success, independent expert institutions such as the central bank are designed to be driven by their desire to retain their reputation for professionalism and expertise.


This lurch towards technocracy is not without its critics or complications. Depoliticising a policy area, on the basis of this reasoning, suits policies which concern purely technical matters and require long-term commitments. Unelected officials seem ill-suited to determine political questions such as whether we should favour health or the economy in choosing a strategy to respond to the pandemic. Yet, where there is a clear mandate from government, they can help to rid the system of electoral incentives and support the delivery of government on the basis of only those reasons relevant to the common good.


Is Covid19 policy a suitable policy area for delegation?


It seems clear that the scientific recommendations for responding to the unfolding crisis entail an element of long-term planning. The effectiveness of any lockdown restrictions will depend upon our ability to meet certain targets (i.e. reduction in the rate of infection and uptake of vaccinations). However, long-term planning requires a vision for the future that commands public support. Most policy challenges are not single issues, but are complex, multifactorial and dynamic and this matter is no exception. Therefore, there are legitimate political reasons for government and Parliament to deliberate on and to contest any particular long-term vision advocated for.


It may seem then, that delegation appears to depoliticise an inherently political question. Yet, it is possible that these political aims can be compatible with tying the hands of government to a specified strategy.


The arising question then is: would tying the government’s hands to the mast of implementing a long-term lockdown strategy mean taking away our ability to make trade-offs and to contest the unfolding situation? There are two points to emphasise in answering this. First, if a long-term strategy is pursued, the question of trade-offs in some sense will disappear. If health is prioritised and scientific advice is followed until the virus is eradicated or controlled sufficiently, then the economy can restart in earnest. Clearly, however, interim trade-offs remain for the period whilst this strategy is being pursued. Second, it can be possible to retain the process of balancing political reasons whilst also delegating to an Independent Agency. This depends upon the establishment of a clear mandate, decided at the political level.


“Data not dates” as a clear mandate


Ahead of us, we have a calendar of dates which – provided the science supports them – will reflect our unfolding regained liberties. The roadmap is said to be contingent upon the data. To guide assessment of whether these dates should be honoured, the government has set itself four rules:

  1. The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully.

  2. Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated.

  3. Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations, which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

  4. Our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new “variants of concern.”[6]

What is mysterious, however, is that the actual data and thresholds to be used to guide their decision making have not been stated. It is not obviously clear why this should not be clarified, and what is to be feared is that they may vary with electoral incentives.


These four criteria, and fixed data and thresholds agreed with government, appear excellent candidates to form the basis of a clear mandate to an independent body of experts. SAGE are a readily available and already convened group of such independent experts[7]. Empowering SAGE to make determinations of whether the UK is fit to honour the target dates of the roadmap would remove the power of government to base its reasoning on electoral incentives. SAGE, motivated to retain its expert and professional reputation, could protect and commit us to the long-term strategy. This might potentially save both lives and the economy if it prevents longer and proliferating future lockdowns. Moreover, it would ease the minds of government ministers, who might be relieved of a level of public pressure to make lockdown easing decisions with the potential to scupper their own strategy.


Still, a concern remains: in conditions where there are heterogenous public interests, depoliticization appears to concentrate power in the hands of those unentitled to speak for the will of the people. It would be true that a move towards empowering SAGE to determine whether the dates set out in the roadmap should be honoured would allow them to decide what has until now been a political question. However, this power to decide could be limited to within the remit of the policy already agreed upon at the political level. Moreover, and more importantly, this power can be seen not so much as a fetter to rule by the people, but more as a constraint on the power of politicians to take decisions based on their electoral incentives. This depoliticization could support our democracy and protect policies made in the interests of the population overall - even if it involves limiting the power of our elected representatives.

[1] https://bylinetimes.com/2020/12/21/eat-out-to-help-out-scheme-epidemiologically-illiterate-rishi-sunak-failed-to-consult-scientists/ [2] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/925854/S0769_Summary_of_effectiveness_and_harms_of_NPIs.pdf [3] https://twitter.com/jappleby123/status/1354199633275351042 [4] Rousseau, J. J. (1997). Rousseau: ‘The Social Contract’ and Other Later Political Writings, trans. Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge University Press. [5] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-statement-to-the-house-of-commons-on-roadmap-for-easing-lockdown-restrictions-in-england-22-february-2021 [6] https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2021/03/08/the-hesitancy-paradox-of-data-not-dates-and-the-governments-roadmap-to-unlocking/ [7] https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-a-former-member-of-sage-explains-how-the-science-advisory-group-really-works-134077

[8] Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

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