Has Britain Had Enough of Experts?

Michael Gove’s infamously said ‘Britain’s has had enough of experts’.

Oliver Harman analyses how this compares to Boris Johnson being always flagged by his Chief Scientific Officer and how strictly we are being led by science currently, a vast change from a mere three years ago. Oliver also asks why health professionals get put on a pedestal whilst economists got slammed?

The second piece of a two-part series on Covid-19.

The UK is facing one of the most precarious, evidence-driven public policy challenges in many years. The uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic is resulting in policy forecasted on limited fundamentals. The UK has a slightly privileged position in that decision makers can learn from others who have acted before, albeit only by a matter of weeks. Yet despite this, the latest data shows it is still experiencing the second-highest death rate of any country at this time of the crisis. We are days behind but mirroring Italy in our death count, despite having much more information to make decisions with - and citizens must ask, why? The recent confusion in government policy exemplifies the lack of precedence and the number of unknown unknowns. This resultant change in policy was in a matter of days from an initial strategy centred around herd immunity to that driven by social distancing and flattening the curve. All novel terms not uttered in Westminster to MPs before this month and never heard by the mass public before now. 

It is refreshing viewing to see the British PM Boris Johnson flanked by Chief Scientific and Chief Medical Advisors. In the past decade of political discourse, it is difficult to remember a time so outwardly and publicly driven by science. Yet it is unnervingly contrasting to four years ago when the same political troupe said: “People in this country have had enough of experts”. This remark drew both condemnation and praise from British voters. Michael Gove, then and now, a leader of the UK government told citizens to “trust themselves” rather than “trust me”. It resulted in voters feeling as confident in economic forecasting as the Governor of Bank of England. 

Four years of such rhetoric swirled. Although initially aimed at economists, telling people to trust themselves over the advice of specialists permeated through other sectors. Climate change and mistrust in the science is just one such example. The erosion of institutions of knowledge and trust in those who govern them has been wide-reaching. Now, the population needs to believe and adhere to the voices of experts more than ever, however, it has spent the last four years being told the opposite. Politicians now beg us to keep calm and trust the health forecasting of the most senior government health experts to steer us through these uncertain times. A far cry from trusting ourselves.

Perhaps, this slow adherence to the voice of experts and perception of reluctant compliance to their data is why the UK’s current death rate is as high as it is. This difficulty is multiplied by confusion in communication with a lack of lay translation. What makes it particularly striking is the slow ability to learn from those who are ahead of us. When we look to the future, just as critical in rebuilding our communities will be rebuilding the eroded trust in the experts. In a post Covid-19 world, the UK needs to move itself to position where those institutions who should steer us in times of difficulty are again recognised. Recognised, placed and kept at the front and centre of evidence-based public policy.

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