The Current

Pandemic decision-making requires politics and science work 'hand in glove:' expert

When it comes to effective decision-making at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, one expert says it’s more complicated than simply following the science.

Some leaders have promised to follow science’s lead, but policy and evidence not always in lockstep

U.K. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, left, and Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, right, look on as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a coronavirus news conference in London on March 19. Johnson has faced criticism as of late for breaking from a previous decision to follow the science when making pandemic-related decisions. (Leon Neal - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

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When it comes to effective decision-making at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, one expert says it's more complicated than simply following the science.

"If we look at countries around the world that have very successfully dealt with the pandemic, it was when politicians and scientific advice were working hand in glove," said Heidi Tworek, associate professor in international history and public policy at the University of British Columbia.

"In places like Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, Senegal, we didn't see that politicians completely disappeared. They were actually really crucial in helping people to understand why they were doing what they were doing, what was the meaning of the guidelines that they were following," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"So I think there's lots of ways in which politicians can be very, very fruitfully involved. But the balance there is what is crucial."

From U.S. president-elect Joe Biden to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, many political leaders have promised to take cues from the science and medical communities to guide their people to the other side of the coronavirus pandemic. But government policy and scientific evidence are not always in lockstep, and those decisions are not always easy to make.

Like any new disease, the science around COVID-19 is constantly evolving, said Tworek, and not all scientists are going to agree on the best course of action.

"And so there have to be decisions made depending on what those disagreements are," she said.

Striking a balance

Stephen Meek, a former U.K. civil servant, said there is always an inevitable degree of tension between what doctors advise in a health crisis, and what politicians decide to do.

That's why it's important that politicians have access to the best evidence and advice possible, he said.

"But fundamentally, what politics is and what politicians have to do, is try to strike the right balance on the base of that evidence," explained Meek, who is also director of the Institute for Policy and Engagement at the University of Nottingham. 

"And that may mean not doing exactly what the pure medical advice on dealing with the pandemic would say."

He added that political leaders will more easily maintain public trust if they can clearly articulate the medical evidence that experts have provided, and the reasonings behind their policy decisions — whether it follows medical advice to the letter, or not.

Meek cited the different pandemic responses in England and Scotland as an example of this in action.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has earned public support for being forthright about how she makes political decisions on the COVID-19 health crisis, says Stephen Meek of the University of Nottingham. (Jane Barlow-Pool/Getty Images)

While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had long said he was making pandemic-related decisions based on science, he has since split from that course, which has earned him criticism.

Meanwhile, Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has garnered much stronger public support, said Meek.

"[Sturgeon] has fronted up every day and talked about how she's taking decisions on the basis of evidence, rather than as we've had with Boris Johnson sometimes saying, 'I'm doing what the scientists say,' [and] sometimes saying other stuff," he said.

Dr. Jim Talbot agrees that maintaining public trust is key in fighting this health crisis. 

The only currency you have in public health is trust.- Dr. Jim Talbot, former chief medical officer of health

But that also means giving medical officers of health the ability to speak candidly to the public on health issues, he said.

"In Flint, Mich., where the civil authorities decided they didn't want to warn people about the lead in the drinking water … people were very angry — rightfully so — that they could have done something to prevent the risk to their kids and to babies if they'd known," said Talbot , a former chief medical officer for Alberta and Nunavut.

"But they weren't informed."

Talbot said that public trust is key for authorities to be able to make decisions and get things done.

"The only currency you have in public health is trust," he said. "And if you squander that trust, you have nothing. It doesn't matter your position or funding or anything else. Trust is our only currency."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Lindsay Rempel and Alex Zabjek.

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