My rule of thumb for this government is if it trumpets that it’s doing something, it is probably doing the opposite.  George Osborne kept saying he had a ‘long term economic plan’ but in reality he kept changing rules to try and wrong foot the opposition for short term political advantage. May’s ‘strong and stable’ government was weak and volatile. When Johnson said he was going to ‘get Brexit done’, what he actually did was negotiate a deal that he intended to renege on almost immediately. When Sunak said he would lead with integrity, he meant he would lead with only slightly more integrity than Johnson. It is quite an effective political strategy for a media more interested in what politicians say than do, until it is found out.
One of the best examples was during the pandemic, when the government declared it was ‘following the science’. We soon realised this wasn’t true as the second wave began to gather force in the autumn of 2020. SAGE recommended a (temporary) lockdown but Johnson refused, under pressure from Sunak in particular. An early lockdown that got R<1 (R is the number of people on average a person with Covid infects) would have greatly reduced the loss of life from that second wave and reduced the length of time a lockdown was required, thus benefiting the economy as well. As I wrote repeatedly at the time, the health/economy trade-off that the government kept talking about is another example of my rule of thumb: there was no trade-off, because reducing R helps rather than hinders the economy.
We now also know that Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme was never discussed by SAGE, the committee of experts advising the government. It is easy to ‘regularise’ this by suggesting it’s a typical example of government departments worrying about their own pitch and not talking to other departments (which is obviously true - see this Institute for Government study for example), but the failure went well beyond this. The Treasury is full of very bright people, and if I can work out that controlling Covid is just like controlling inflation, so can they. The scheme was bound to raise R, so they needed SAGE’s input to assess how much it would do so. That they didn’t bother suggests ministerial direction from Sunak.
SAGE member John Edmunds says “it was a spectacularly stupid idea and an obscene way to spend public money.” A study by Thiemo Fetzer in the Economic Journal found that the scheme was effective at getting people back into restaurants, and as a predictable result helped increase the spread of Covid by a significant amount. The Treasury line - that the scheme was successful at getting people into restaurants but had no impact on Covid infections - is just unbelievable. How exactly do they think Covid spreads! Whereas in the autumn of 2020 he just encouraged Johnson to make a choice that killed many unnecessarily, in this earlier case Sunak is directly responsible for some of the lives lost in the epidemic.
In these two cases ‘following the science’ either means ‘doing the opposite of what scientists suggest’ or ‘not wanting to ask the scientists because we will not like their answer’. We know less about what ‘following the science’ really meant in the early months of the pandemic. We know that Johnson was keen on herd immunity, but to what extent were SAGE consulted about possible alternatives to that strategy? Here Edmunds says
“We were asked questions and gave scientific answers but we didn’t know what strategy was being discussed by the government. It was written by them and we saw it the same day that the press saw it. They never said: ‘Here’s the strategy, what do you think of it?’ That’s not how it worked and that is why it’s always been so misleading for the government to pretend that it was following science. That’s just nonsense.”