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What does it really mean to 'follow the science'?

Open access article

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society has made this article free to access in order to help healthcare professionals stay informed about an issue of national importance.

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The government insists it has ‘followed the science’ every step of the way during the pandemic, but to date, the UK has reported the highest number of deaths owing to COVID-19 in Europe[1].

Conservative Party politicians have been keen to emphasise that their policies have followed the best advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was asked in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee on 29 April 2020 about the government’s policy not requing air passengers to self-isolate upon arrival to the UK[2]. The response was “we follow the science”.

When challenged on the science by Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Patel could not elaborate. She promised that the relevant data will be published sometime in the future, but did not give a specific date.

Cooper rightfully stated that if scientific data are not published, no one is able to scrutinise and therefore understand the policies being enacted by political leaders.

Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, described the UK as an outlier: “It is very hard to understand why it persists in having this open-borders policy. It is most peculiar[3].” More than 130 countries have introduced some form of travel restrictions as part of the containment measures since the COVID-19 outbreak began[3].

Is there something else going on? From their words, Conversative Party politicians — including the prime minister, Boris Johnson — appear to be following a carefully coordinated plan, “guided by the science”. No one can disagree with this phrase, so it almost stops the conversation. Of course we will follow the science. Any attempt to challenge the government could make one out to be a traitor or leave one to be accused of scoring political points in a time of crisis.

I’ve heard politicians says we cannot compare our data with other countries. Why not? Yes, there may have been differences in data collection, but that does not mean we should not look at what other countries are doing and how they came to decide on a particular measure or policy.

The simplest explanation for Germany’s lower death total for both citizens and healthcare staff (8,411 as of 28 May 2020), is that they went hard and fast in the basics of infection control — test, trace and isolate[1]. Breaking the chain of infection during a lockdown enabled them to introduce measures to ease the situation for its citizens[4].

It feels like we are playing a game of catch-up; Chris Witty, chief medical officer, admitted that there is “a lot to learn” from Germany[5].

We should all be angry and we should not be distracted by clapping, political spin or the “we follow the science” mantra. We should hold those in power to account and request the scientific data to better understand policy.


Dave Sharma, company director, Consilia Medica

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2020.20208008

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