“Boris Johnson repeatedly promised to bring forward “world-class” and “world-beating” systems to tackle Covid-19 – most notably for testing and contact tracing by the beginning of June, a system that is sufficiently patchy that this week Blackburn with Darwen council had to launch its own.”
They were billed by the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, as “lifesaving” and “hugely beneficial”: two new coronavirus tests that claim to deliver results within 90 minutes, promoted enthusiastically to the public with the help of front pages in the Times, the i and the Daily Mail, which declared they would “transform the war on corona”.
The suppliers are little known, evaluation data is not yet available, and it is unclear how effective the tests are outside hospital settings, not least because taking blood or swabs is difficult for non-medics.
But it is an infectious optimism that is hard to shake: during the dismal and downright frightening fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, upbeat scientific or medical claims have been made by politicians and taken up the media, few of which have been borne out to the degree or timeline originally mooted.
There may be moments when hype is justified, but the reality, say experts, is that the crisis constitutes a long hard slog in which ordering people to stay indoors and shutting down the economy has had more impact than any medical or technological advance so far.
Some blame politicians for being a little too eager to leap on positive stories in a time of crisis, with the boosterish health secretary often appearing particularly keen. It was Hancock who claimed a contact-tracing app would be ready in England in mid-May. “NHS phone app holds key to lifting lockdown” said one Sunday paper splash in April. That app is yet to arrive, with the original version scrapped entirely.
Then there was the 100,000-a-day test target, described as “Matt’s target” – though allies of Hancock say the principal aim was to concentrate minds on increasing tests. The figure was met briefly at the end of May before falling again. Yet within days the declared target rose to 200,000, and last month to 500,000 a day. The reality? The UK is processing about 170,000 daily tests on average, far lower than some other countries.
But the problem of over-promising and hype flows from the top.
Boris Johnson repeatedly promised to bring forward “world-class” and “world-beating” systems to tackle Covid-19 – most notably for testing and contact tracing by the beginning of June, a system that is sufficiently patchy that this week Blackburn with Darwen council had to launch its own.
Officials, too, have succumbed. Prof Sharon Peacock, director of the national infection service at Public Health England, said in March that mass antibody testing would “absolutely” be available within days. Ministers had bought 3.5m of the tests but a fortnight later had to admit they did not work.
Why does the reality so often fail to match the promises and breathless PR?
Alex Thomas, a former civil servant and private secretary to the late cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, said: “While there is a natural optimism bias in all of us, this government has a tendency to be more comfortable about talking about the sunlit uplands, and that inevitably feeds through.”
Some scientists bemoan cutbacks in scientific advice to government over the past decade and an absence of public health specialists among the most senior scientific advisers, saying they weaken the system and the ability to deliver on abstract aims.
There are also criticisms that the UK has become, in the words of one scientist, “far too disengaged from Europe and globally”, and that there remains a lingering sense of British exceptionalism. In April, Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, claimed the UK was “an international exemplar in preparedness” as the death toll was soaring. England ended up with the highest excess deaths in Europe.
An emerging low-level nationalism endemic in media coverage as well as politics focuses intensely on British knowhow and developments, in the fashion of a major sporting event – whether in the much-vaunted attempt by Dyson to build ventilators for Britain, which ultimately collapsed amid lack of need, or in the focus on UK progress in developing a vaccine, while coverage of foreign efforts is more muted.
As well as ministers’ desire to emphasise the upside – likely a mixture of spin and natural, even desperate, optimism – scientists and researchers are under intense pressure to succeed in research, generate good publicity and win additional funding.
The result, says Martin McKee, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Research, is an increase in “wishful thinking”. The academic points to research published four years ago that showed a dramatic increase in the use of positive language such as “robust”, “novel”, and “unprecedented”, in papers published between 1974 and 2014.
Compounding the problem is the sheer complexity of coronavirus virology, which often runs up against simplistic public understandings of science. Prof Deenan Pillay, a virologist at University College London, argues the usefulness of antibody tests has been misunderstood.
The problem, he says, is that after infection “the level of antibodies goes up, but then they come down”, adding: “There was this idea that if you tested positive, you were a superman, immune for life, but that’s not true. It turned out to be hype.”
As a result, related ideas for immunity passports that could let some people return to near normal lives – and these made a splash in the Guardian – were talked up as a possibility by Hancock but did not ultimately come to fruition. The latest evidence lends further credence to the possibility that antibodies drop off significantly within weeks.
Excitement about a vaccine is understandable – in particular Oxford University’s, whose initial trials generated wall-to-wall media coverage last month. “Vaccine for Christmas,” reported the Daily Mail and others, although the university had previously said it could be ready by September, a date set to be quietly missed.
But again Pillay cautions over expectations out of kilter with reality. “We have unrealistic expectations of what a vaccine might do – one or two shots and you are immune. But maybe it will be more like flu where you need a shot every year, the vaccine is only 70% effective and flu is still with us.”
The senior scientist says such over-optimism is not unique to the pandemic, but it has been brought into sharp relief by the intensity of the crisis and the dominance of the story in the news.
“There has long been a glorifying and over-emphasising of scientific advances – and it’s been increasing over time. In a way, everyone’s to blame, from scientists, politicians, investors [to] the media,” he said.