After the pandemic is over, our political leaders will be held to account for their dithering and buck-passing, writes Paul Finch
Back in the dim and distant, Roy Landau, head of the Architectural Association’s graduate school, managed to persuade the two great experts on the construction of the dome of St Peter’s, Rome, to attend the same conference. It was intended to resolve the question of whether or not formwork had been used. By definition, this question could not be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, but it was an intriguing event.
I had forgotten all about it until the current coronavirus crisis brought the idea of ‘experts’ back into the spotlight. This was partly to beat up the government in general, and Michael Gove in particular, because of their scepticism during the Brexit campaign (remember that?) about what experts were predicting about the economy.
Suddenly there was Boris, flanked by his official experts, telling us what we should do, based on the independent advice being given to government by health chiefs and boffins from Imperial College. This sounded to me like buck-passing, in the sense that in any national crisis, decisions that need to be taken are the province of elected politicians. They may take advice from experts, but in the end the decisions are political.
As we have already seen, and in line with that dispute about St Peter’s, there is a problem about experts, which is that they do not necessarily agree with each other. Moreover, because they are expert in one field, it does not make them expert in the potential consequences of their advice. Who frames the question to be asked?
This has become particularly acute in relation to protection of health service workers, and indeed any workers engaged with the public at large, covering sectors such as transport, supermarkets and (thank goodness!) off-licences, the latter regarded as essential to the nation’s sanity, if not health.
In respect of this, the prime minister has been surprisingly dithery. As a biographer of Churchill, he is clearly familiar with the history of Dunkirk and the entirely political decision to send out the flotilla of small boats to rescue a trapped army. (Incidentally, if the Today programme had been around in 1940 there would have been no such decision necessary, because we would have already given up the fight and Halifax would have been in charge. Discuss.)
For trapped army, read health service staff. It appears that centralised decision-makers could not get their minds around the psychological implications of asking the health troops to go into war unarmed. Churchill would have completely understood this and demanded ‘action this day’, instead of waiting for weeks to bring in independent testing laboratories and chemical producers.
One cannot underestimate the pressure and difficulties the decision-makers face
One cannot underestimate the pressure and difficulties the decision-makers face, and it is too easy for armchair critics (like me) to take pot-shots at the politicians making the tough calls. But it is not unreasonable to criticise the framing of the challenges to be resolved, which is a matter for prime minister and cabinet, not experts (some of them squabblesome and attention-grabbing) who are on hand to advise, not decide.
There will be time enough to review the sequence of judgements and decisions from the start of this crisis, once it is over. This will be another version of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, where experts abound, all subject to cross-examination by that other group of experts – barristers paid to represent client interests, not to establish the truth as such. That is the task that falls, in the case of Grenfell, to a former judge who has done an extraordinarily good job so far.
His equivalent will be required once the present ghastliness has passed. It is going to be equally uncomfortable.