'Misleading and damaging': Boris Johnson and ministers criticised over claims they were 'following the science'

Ross McGuinness
·3-min read
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference in response to the ongoing situation with the Covid-19 pandemic, at 10 Downing Street, London.
Boris Johnson has been criticised for his 'following the science' mantra. (PA)

Boris Johnson and his government have been criticised for their “misleading” and “damaging” mantra that they have “followed the science” during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Institute for Government (IfG) accused ministers of a “haphazard” communication of public health messages during the COVID-19 crisis that has switched between alarm and reassurance.

The independent think-tank criticised the government in a 58-page report released on Monday called Science Advice In A Crisis.

On Saturday, the prime minister repeated his “following the science” slogan when announcing a U-turn over Christmas restrictions and that London and the South East were being placed in Tier 4.

COVID-19 restrictions in England. (PA)
COVID-19 restrictions in England. (PA)

The original Christmas bubble policy, which would have allowed up to three families to spend time together between 23 and 27 December, has been dramatically scaled back, with those in Tiers 1 to 3 only allowed to socialise on Christmas Day.

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The Tier 4 COVID lockdown rules explained
The Tier 3 COVID lockdown rules explained
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“I know how disappointing this will be,” said Johnson.

“But we have said throughout this pandemic that we must and we will be guided by the science. When the science changes, we must change our response.”

Watch: Boris Johnson cancels Christmas meet-up for millions

But the IfG accused the government of delaying the first lockdown back in spring because it was looking to scientists for answers, and of ignoring the advice of its own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) completely later in the year.

In a statement alongside its report, the think-tank said: “While ministers have faced extraordinarily difficult choices, the government’s response to the pandemic has too often been undermined by misunderstanding the role of science advice and using it inconsistently.

“Looking to scientists to make judgements only politicians can make – captured in ministers’ misleading mantra that they were ‘following the science’ – contributed to the government delaying the first lockdown.

“The government failed to bring different strands of advice together to form a coherent strategy when restrictions were lifted from May.

“Scientists were not consulted about policies including the Eat Out to Help Out scheme and thought they were epidemiologically illiterate, and Sage was consulted too late about the return of university students to offer useful advice.

“Haphazard communication of key public health messages has switched between alarm and reassurance, while failing to drive home key points such as the risk of gathering indoors.”

The report pointed out in that Johnson’s first daily press briefing from Downing Street during the pandemic on 16 March, the PM said the government’s decisions would be “led by science”.

However, the IfG said ministers’ insistence they were “following the science” was “inaccurate and damaging”.

It said: “The phrase was offered so frequently in daily briefings and media interviews that it became a mantra. It may have been an attempt to give greater authority to public health measures.

Commuters wearing masks because of the Covid-19 pandemic are seen at London's Victoria Station during the morning rush hour on December 21, 2020 after London was placed under stringent Tier 4 coronavirus restrictions as cases of the virus surge due to a new more infectious strain. - The British prime minister was to chair a crisis meeting on December 21 as a growing number of countries blocked flights from Britain over a new highly infectious coronavirus strain the UK said was "out of control". (Photo by Niklas HALLE'N / AFP) (Photo by NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images)
Commuters wearing masks at London's Victoria Station on Monday. (AFP via Getty Images)

“But the phrase was inaccurate – and in fact damaging – because it implied a role that scientific advice could and should not play. The phrase blurred the line between the scientific advice and policy decisions.”

It pointed out that Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon used more measured language, saying science advice “informs our decisions”.

The report also said Johnson’s absence at several key Cabinet Office Briefings Rooms (Cobra) meetings during the early stages of the coronavirus crisis “raised legitimate questions about whether the prime minister was sufficiently alert to the scale of the threat”.

Watch: What is long COVID?