PCC Blog: 6

There’s Science, and Science

The government has been at pains all along to insist that decisions to overcome Covid19 – such as social distancing, lock-down, and so on – are based on ‘the science’. This is why at the daily briefings a minister is always flanked by medical and scientific advisers: it gives the appearance that the political decisions were not really political at all; they were what the ‘science’ dictated.

But the longer the crisis has gone on, the more we have come to realise two things about this decision-making based on ‘the science’.

The first is that the science in question is a mix of medical knowledge and modelling. There is the science of the virus itself – what the people in laboratories with petri dishes and microscopes are discovering – an exact science, we might say. But what the government is also calling ‘science’ is something very different. This ‘science’ is less like medicine and more like economics. Economists seek to model how economies will behave if particular policy decisions are taken – but this is not an exact science. We all know that different economists can use the same data and come up with different recommendations for policy. Only time will tell whether or not their calculations were right.

Policy decisions may rely on modelling but they are not dictated by it. The decisions of the policy- maker take into account what the different views of the experts are, but in the final analysis, the policy decisions are theirs. Advisers advise, ministers decide. Every decision taken around what we should do because of this virus has been political in this way.

This is no criticism of decision-makers. It’s what we elect them to do. They have to make decisions because science cannot do it for you.

This brings me to the second point.

If what I have said above is true, and if this virus is new and unique, then no one could have been absolutely certain about everything that needed to be done to keep us safe. When we start to come out of lock-down the same will be just as true. And since we are not let into the conversations the different kinds of scientists are having with the ministers, we have to rely on what the ministers tell us. The entire strategy of the government needs us to trust them. If we trust them we will obey the rules they ask us to follow. (Though we do need to see them obeying the same rules.) We have to trust their judgement, their competency.

Trust and Confidence

But something has now happened to damage trust and confidence.

When the government decided to allow patients in hospitals to be transferred to care homes, they said testing was not necessary. We now know that was wrong. Some brought the virus with them from hospital. As a result, no sector of the population has suffered more than elderly residents in care homes – and those who look after them. If this decision was based on ‘the science’ then the science was an unreliable guide. Common sense alone would have got you to a better conclusion. So this has caused doubts in the public mind around competency and that has damaged trust and confidence in both experts and ministers. Trust and confidence is something the police understand very well. A police force knows better than many organisations, that once public trust and confidence starts to slip, it takes a supreme effort to get it back.

And what will happen to crime as we come out of lock-down?

Although crime fell during the early weeks of the lock-down, it is starting to creep back now as more people are out and about. The house burglar or the drug dealer is not quite as exposed as he was when the streets were emptier.

We are all having to think about what happens next as the rules around lock-down are lifted. We can make some guesses, but until we know precisely how this is going to happen, we have to prepare for different scenarios – more modelling, I’m afraid.

So, for example, if the night-time economy is restored, we can expect a return to public order incidents in town centres. Commercial as well as residential burglaries may increase. With growing poverty, foodbanks may become targets. The aggressive street beggars may return, especially those who want money to feed their addictions. If shops re-open, shoplifting may resume, and increased poverty may add to it.

There are two aspects that worry me most.

First, what has happened to domestic abuse during the lock-down? Have some victims been unable to get away from violent partners or ask for help because the partner was a constant presence? What have the children suffered or seen during this time?

Second, what will happen if the economy does not pick up swiftly and we are left with many hundreds of unemployed young people across the county? They will be very vulnerable, an easy target for the drug-dealing gangs. And will that bring with it an intensification of gang rivalries and a new wave of serious violence?

Supporting Vulnerable Victims

Last week I announced new funding made available to me as PCC by the Ministry of Justice to support organisations working with victims of domestic and sexual violence, vulnerable children and their families.

The funding is provided to help meet the additional costs incurred by services during the pandemic, and to cope with demand increases resulting from it.

I would like to encourage organisations, who meet the criteria, to submit bids before 1 June. Full details can be found here on my website.

Dover Beach

I re-read Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach, today. The last stanza resonated somewhat with everything I have written above:

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.