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Boris Johnson with political advisers at press conference

COVID-19: where science and politics collide

4th June 2020

Located deep underground in Switzerland lives the large hadron collider – a feat of modern science and engineering that hurtles particles towards each other faster than the speed of light. Scientists busily study data from these collisions in the hope of solving the mysteries of the universe.

Whether those mysteries are ever solved time will tell, but the collider is a prime example of where science, and the political decisions needed to support it, can co-exist.

But are we experiencing a collision of science and politics of a different kind here in the UK?

It is hard to recollect a time when our scientists and medical professionals have been thrust so forcefully into the limelight. Other than those of us involved in public affairs, how many can say pre-COVID that they had heard the names Chris Whitty or Patrick Vallance, or here in Scotland would have recognised a Jason Leitch or Catherine Calderwood if they passed you in the street? Very few I suspect.

Traditionally our scientific and medical advisers operate at the margins of political life, briefing ministers in private on the issues of the day. Yet the scale of the COVID crisis has led to the emergence of these experts into the cut and thrust of daily political life. Some have handled the transition well, others have wilted under the pressure.

Here in Scotland, National Clinical Director Jason Leitch has emerged with a much enhanced personal reputation. He has the aura of a man in command of his brief, who is able to communicate effectively his key messages. The cult of Jason Leitch is growing: Twitter fan accounts have appeared and a #ListentoJason tag now exists. It will be a long time before Professor Leitch has to buy his own pints in a pub. Given how adept he is at traversing the political and scientific divide, it would not come as a huge shock to see him in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament should he wish a future change of career.

Contrast that with his former colleague Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s former Chief Medical Officer. Despite sure-footed appearances at the beginning of the outbreak, she underestimated the level of personal scrutiny she was under. Being caught not following her own advice was a political misstep that crippled what looked to be a growing public career beyond her specialist day job. A similar fate befell former UK Government advisor Professor Neil Ferguson. Our experts are discovering that politics, and the public, often take no prisoners.

The perception is that Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic in Scotland is broadly in line with her experts, but the same cannot be said of the Prime Minister. At each UK daily briefing, the unease of medical and scientific advisers is evident as the media lobby poses questions about the political impact of decisions such as the recent Dominic Cummings affair. Such decisions are made at the highest reaches of Government, yet advisers are expected to toe the line and present a united front, even if they have private reservations. Political animals have the ability and party loyalty to turn negative scrutiny into a political jab at an opponent. Specialist advisers have no such defence mechanisms and their faces often reflect an inner conflict we can (and do) only guess at.

Some may perceive that a failure of political decision making has left many of our eminent physicians and scientists cruelly exposed on a very public stage where the stakes are high. But never forget that our medical and scientific advisers are there to do exactly that – advise. The real accountability for decisions lies with the politicians. So next time you spot a pained expression on the face of a medical or scientific adviser – cut them a little slack. It’s not what they signed up for.

Colin McFarlane is a Director, and Head of Public Affairs at Pagoda

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