Op Ed - Coronavirus: Dial down the partisan hyperbole and focus on facts

Originally in Times Red Box

John Maynard Keynes’s words “when the facts change, I change my mind” are so often referenced in the modern world, but perhaps never more than now.

The last time a pandemic shook the whole world was in 1918 with the Spanish flu. Now all of us are looking to doctors and scientists for answers. Over the past few years it seemed that leading Conservatives were casually dismissing the views of experts, but I am pleased to see that the prime minister is now routinely flanked by the Chris Witty, the chief medical officer for England, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser. These are respected experts who are advised by others and informed by the latest data. Perhaps there is value in expert opinion after all.

So long as the UK government is listening to the latest advice with a humble ear and communicating well, they have my support. But it is not unconditional. My job as an MP remains to ask questions, and I expect robust answers in return as I expose areas of concern that affect our most vulnerable.

The sunlight of transparency is often the best disinfectant. It will help us understand why the advice that we receive may change, regularly even, because the situation is shifting. Those with a background in epidemiology are learning more by the hour about this virus and how our precious NHS will cope.

Even though I have a physics degree, I accept that I cannot begin to appreciate the complexities and ever-evolving nature of this situation without effective communication.

That’s why I am looking forward to seeing the modelling when it is published. Transparency engenders trust, and the Conservatives need to realise that a large part of the population do not automatically have their trust. They must earn it through their actions.

There have been slip-ups in the past 48 hours. Information from government was tweeted without context and an article by the health secretary was for a time behind a paywall.

A vacuum of details could become a breeding ground for those who wish to take political advantage, spreading fake news and distrust. I’d urge the government to communicate more information more frequently. Embrace the mantra of openness, transparency and consent that is the bedrock of our liberal democracy. The blunt messaging of an election campaign may be a speciality for Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings for winning over about half of the population. But if they want to bring the entire country with them and behind the science, they will need to do more.

The hyperbolic language of opposition MPs and the media must change too. Now is not the time for the tit-for-tat narratives that our country is sadly used to. Keep your omnishambles and U-turns for another day; people want cool-headed, accurate information about how to protect themselves and those they love. They don’t want to see their elected representatives throwing mud at each other.

I won’t be engaging in an adversarial blame game because it helps no one. But I will continue to demand transparency and cogent communication, as lives may well depend on it.

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