Govts’ biggest Covid mistake was avoidable

Leaders have to balance many factors in deciding how far to restrict economic and personal freedoms to suppress the virus


NO SENSIBLE person should envy politicians having to decide how best to combat Covid-19. Confronted with a new virus, errors and missteps were inevitable. But their biggest mistake was unnecessary — they pretended to know more than they did.

From the start, under relentless pressure from the media, governments expressed unwarranted certainty about the merits of their policies. Then, when circumstances suggested a change of course, they explained the new direction with equal certainty. After a few such reversals, trust declines. And trust in political leadership is crucial — especially now, with people beginning to be asked to get vaccinated.

Many governments cast their false certainties as a matter of deferring to experts or trusting “the science”. (Sadly, many scientists were only too happy to be co-opted in this way.) Six days before the election, President-elect Joe Biden said: “I believe in science. Donald Trump doesn’t. It’s that simple, folks.”

No, it isn’t. The science of the new coronavirus and the conditions it causes are anything but settled. And the question of how best to contain infections wouldn’t be exclusively scientific even if everything about the virus was understood.

This question is, in fact, unavoidably political. Pretending otherwise doesn’t work. It erodes trust and, as a result, only makes the policy challenge even harder.

No country has found it easy to manage the pandemic. Even those that did best, such as Taiwan and South Korea, have encountered setbacks. Europe’s new wave is happening despite tight restrictions on movement. Finland, Denmark and Greece were all doing well earlier this year; all are now seeing cases and deaths rise. France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK are struggling, and the US continues to set new records. The differences between countries aren’t fully understood.

Rich countries in Europe have apparently performed worse than many poor countries in Africa. Singapore has suffered far more cases than South Korea, but far fewer deaths.

Why? We don’t know. The very concept of a “case” of Covid-19 is slippery — it means that a person tested positive according to a particular test set at a particular threshold. Policy under these circumstances is bound to be a process of trial and error.

In deciding how far to restrict economic and personal freedoms in order to suppress the virus, political leaders have to balance many factors. Listening to and challenging scientific advice are part of that role; pretending that “the science” tells us what to do is not.

Trial and error, honestly admitted, can at least strive to be methodical. Instead, the drift in many countries toward ever more complicated and constantly changing rules is making the credibility problem worse.

England is now divided into three tiers with varying degrees of restriction. Anomalies abound. London has lately been in Tier 2, or “high alert”. (It will be in Tier 3, “very high alert”, from today.) This meant Londoners were told they “must not socialise with anyone you do not live with…in any indoor setting, whether at home or in a public place”, and they “must not socialise in a group of more than six people outside, including in a garden or a public space”.

Why six? Does the science say seven is too many? The meaning of “strict lockdown” has varied widely from country to country — with some restricting outside exercise, for example, others not. Covid-9 is the same disease everywhere.

It seems the most effective measures to defeat the new coronavirus have actually been pre-scientific — the centuries-old remedies of separation (“social distancing”), quarantine and the closure of borders. This was easier for countries such as Taiwan and New Zealand than for countries in Europe.

The crucial and truly remarkable contribution of science has not been in designing lockdown measures based on unreliable predictions, but developing at record speed vaccines that hold out the promise of a return to a more normal life in 2021.

It’s likely to be several years before a useful assessment of how best to curb the spread of the disease can be made. At that point, lessons for the future can be drawn. Governments will doubtlessly be found to have made mistakes. Such is the nature of decision-making under radical uncertainty.

Two conclusions, however, can be drawn right now.

First, pandemics will recur, and we need to be better prepared for the next one.

Second, closing borders until an initial outbreak has been suppressed might be the single most important measure to prevent the spread of a new virus.

An international agreement to provide financial and other help to a country in which a new virus is identified in return for a prompt closing of its borders would be a major, if difficult, step forward. This would enable other countries to avoid closing their own borders and shutting down large parts of their economies.

In the meantime, don’t pretend to know what you don’t. It requires a lot of intellectual self-confidence to answer a question by saying, “I don’t know”. Sometimes, that kind of honesty is what the public interest demands. — Bloomberg

  • Mervyn King was the Bank of England governor from 2003 to 2013. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.