'If society doesn’t use this as a wake-up call then people are being pretty stupid' - Sir Ian Boyd on building resilience
“A very small number of people have known for a very long time that this was coming,” Sir Ian Boyd tells Holyrood. “People like me have been saying that, inside of government, for a very long time. We were not able to say where it was coming from or when it would come, but we knew something like this was coming.
“Actually the positive thing is that it [coronavirus] is relatively mild. We may not think that while we are in the middle of it, but this is a really mild pandemic. It is killing around one per cent of people who get it, it could be killing 40 per cent of people who get it, that is the opposite end of the spectrum, of a really serious pandemic.”
A highly distinguished scientist and a St Andrews University professor, Boyd’s career has been a varied one. Beginning in reproductive physiology, his research drew him to the mechanics of large scale systems - including a 14-year stint in the Antarctic, examining the dynamics of the southern ocean - before he moved into examining social systems. He has worked all over the world, collecting a list of honours, from receiving the Scientific Medal of the Zoological Society of London to being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, to becoming Chief Scientific Adviser at Defra. He was knighted in 2019 and now supports government as part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
Yet, despite his titles, his warnings over the risk of a pandemic apparently fell on deaf ears. In fact he wasn’t alone, even the UK Government’s own National Risk Register put the danger of pandemic at the top of a list of threats, ever since it was created in 2008.
When the pandemic struck, the UK, along with most of the rest of the world, seemed to be caught by surprise. Governments debated lockdown – with reports suggesting stronger action was delayed due to concern over the effect restrictions would have on public order – while ordinary people reacted to the news by panic buying toilet paper and food supplies.
And yet, despite questions over the early handling of the pandemic, Boyd is pretty optimistic of a return to some sort of normality over the next year, pointing to the number of potential vaccines emerging, alongside breakthroughs in treatments, as potential routes out of the current crisis.
“I don’t think it will be one thing”, he says. “When this thing kicked off the scientific machine started to crank up, if we had been properly resilient the scientific machine would have cranked up decades ago, and we would already have a solution in place. I think that’s the reality. But as soon as this hit, the scientific machine cranked up. There was a huge amount of effort, across the globe, to identify clinical interventions so that when people do get sick with coronavirus they get better treatments and therapies. Secondly, the hunt for a vaccine. I have lost count of how many vaccines are being developed – at least 200, possibly more than 300 different lines of development. All of that was done in the first two or three months, and with a good following wind some will develop positive outcomes, some already have. More and more of these things are bubbling up.
“By the end of this year, and as next year develops, we will start to see more and more therapies and we will get vaccines in place, some of which will be better than others, but they will develop. I think that, certainly by this time next year, they will have a huge impact on the disease and it will be pushing it down. I am optimistic we will get through this, and we will solve this as a problem. But am I optimistic it will make us less fragile? Not really.
“The slightly bad thing about that [relying on a scientific solution] is that it creates this moral hazard, that people will say ‘oh well we solved it with science last time, we will do that again next time’, and we might do, but the cost associated with that – say with a high pathogenicity influenza, where 20-40 per cent of people who get it die – the cost of doing it that way would be ridiculously high. It’s just not a good way to work.”
And this is the key point for Boyd. The UK was at risk from pandemic before COVID-19 struck, and unless something changes it will continue to be at risk after the crisis ends. No one knew the specifics, but they knew the threat of a contagious virus was real. And so while the UK can navigate a route out of the pandemic, without further action to prepare society for future threats, it will be no better placed than it was this time last year.
Or, as Boyd puts it: “If society doesn’t use this as a wake-up call then people are being pretty stupid, actually. What’s the response, and how can we build greater resilience? Well if we genuinely want to be resilient then we need to be a very different country to what we are now. I see that at UK level and at Scottish level. In most cases, we live through a moral hazard, in that we expect the government, whatever that is, to protect us. When it doesn’t we just get annoyed with it. We are kind of in that phase at the moment - you know, ‘this isn’t my responsibility, it’s someone else’s’ - but actually the problem is us.”
He adds: “I’ll give you an example. New Zealand is probably one of the most resilient nations of the wealthy world, it’s demonstrated that through its response to COVID-19 but it demonstrates it in other ways as well. If we want to get ourselves into the position New Zealand is in at the moment it will take us two or three generations. That is 50-70 years of continuous hard work, because it is about changing culture, and attitudes. In New Zealand the government says to people, if there is a disaster, don’t expect any help from the government for at least three days, and probably a lot longer. That means no food, no healthcare, no nothing. That means you, as an individual, need to have the resilience to cope. It’s not just a matter of going down the shops and buying a load of food to store away, it may be that a member of my family is critically injured and I need to look after that person, and treat them, for maybe a week or ten days. To keep them alive. Do I have the skills to do that? Well, I’ve been in the Antarctic for a long time, I’ve been taught how to do that, but the vast majority of people wouldn’t. If the government turned around and said that is what they expected people to do in Britain, they’d get laughed at - ‘that’s not our job, that’s your job’. But it actually is people’s jobs to do that. The way people panic – they panic buy food, they panic buy toilet roll, stuff like that – shows a complete lack of resilience. People are very, very fragile.”
Yet instead of building the sort of society Boyd describes, he says the UK, along with most of the developed world, has spent decades in pursuit of economic efficiency. Disruption brought by Brexit has revealed weaknesses across the system – just look at the precarious nature of last minute supply chains – and while economic efficiency has its benefits, it comes at the cost of creating the sort of resilience required to withstand a major shock to the system.
The world has reeled in the face of coronavirus, but whether it will learn any lessons is debatable. It’s hard to escape the sense that some of the risks facing the planet – climate change being the other obvious example – are just too overwhelming to think about. Is there a sense people consider these problems as too big and too scary to react to?
“That’s the standard response,” Boyd says. “If you create a situation where people are not being communicated with on a regular basis – not just on the challenge, but on solutions – then all they do when they are suddenly confronted with it is say ‘I can’t deal with that, it’s too big for me, it’s someone else’s problem’. I am saying it is for people to do, but it is also for governments because what governments can do is provide leadership.”
Some would argue that’s where expert advisers should come in, to make policy-makers understand the nature and severity of the threats we face. Politicians don’t like telling people things they don’t want to hear: it’s uncomfortable and risky. But could scientific advice help? To remove the politics from these decisions, and give elected leaders something concrete to point to?
Boyd nods: “That was kind of the mantra during the first wave of the epidemic - ‘we’re following the advice etc’. It’s less so now, because they are trying to trade off the social and economic impacts with the epidemiological impacts. The scientific advice is mainly concerned with the epidemiological impacts – the scientific advice is saying one thing and they are getting information from other directions, which is pushing against that to some extent, and they are trying to find a middle road through it, which is fine, that is what politicians are there to deal with.
“But there’s a difference between that and the big strategic picture, and that’s something they tend not to talk about as much as they should. With respect to the tactical interventions to deal with COVID-19, science is just one of a number of different lines of information. One can be very critical if you are only looking at it through one of those lenses. That’s what SAGE provides, it provides one of those lenses, it doesn’t provide all of them. At the end of the day there is always a moral judgement to be made, and it is a really difficult trade off. You are trading people’s lives against people’s lives, and they are different people. I have a lot of sympathy for politicians in the current dilemma, because there is no good result.”
“Science provides one angle on the solution to problems. So a politician that stands up and says ‘I am just following the science’ either is being disingenuous, because they are probably not doing that, or else being a bit stupid, because science is just one part of the picture. It’s a catchphrase which is meant to head off politicised criticism. They are cloaking themselves in the science, and a lot of journalists – particularly political journalists – find it a lot harder to question it when they are cloaking themselves in science. It’s just a tactic, and that’s why I don’t like it. It’s a slightly dishonest tactical manoeuvre on the part of politicians.”