Who is leading Sweden’s coronavirus strategy? For much of the pandemic, the state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has been the public face of the government’s COVID-19 response. The Swedish government has consistently deferred to his advice (as well as the advice of the public health body he represents) to the extent that the former state epidemiologist, Johan Giesecke, has warned that Tegnell may have been given “too much power”. However, following months of relying on voluntary public measures, the government finally U-turned in November and introduced stricter restrictions on public gatherings. So, has it now stopped “following the science”?
In the Swedish capital, the healthcare system has reached breaking point. The “light touch” approach was clearly no longer sustainable. In December, Stockholm’s health authority announced that 99% of its intensive care beds were occupied, and called for help from the country’s military. Neighbouring countries, Finland and Norway, have offered to step in and provide support. Tegnell has admitted that resistance among the population to the virus through exposure and infection has not built as quickly as he had expected (though “herd immunity” was never the stated aim of the Swedish strategy).
“We are following the science” was also the mantra from the British government early in the pandemic, though it drew criticism from scientists for misrepresenting how scientific advice helps shape policy. Some scientists in the UK have even argued that ministers used them as “cover” when making difficult decisions, or that politicians misrepresented scientific advice to justify policy choices they favoured ideologically, and that this risks confusing the public and eroding trust in scientists.
Transparency is key. Politicians need to listen to scientific advice, though there should certainly be a recognition that science can change as more evidence is acquired. Scientists need to be given platforms to talk to the public and explain the evidence. However, ultimately, surely it is politicians (and not scientists) who need to be held accountable for the policy decisions they make, even in an extraordinary situation such as a pandemic?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Proactive arguing that, ultimately, scientists need to advise but politicians need to decide. He argues that too many politicians have been “abdicating positive leadership roles during the COVID-19 pandemic and hiding behind ‘the science’.”
To get a response, we spoke to Sara Cerdas, a Portuguese medical doctor and politician who serves as a Member of the European Parliament with the Socialists & Democrats group. What would she say?
It’s a good question by Proactive, indeed. But I would say that this pandemic has given every citizen, even if they don’t have a scientific background, a sneak peak into how scientific progress is made. So, at scientific conferences you usually are there with your colleagues and are presenting the latest evidence, sometimes they clash and sometimes they converge, and you need a lot of evidence, and it’s like a puzzle; each person may have a piece and we need to put it all together. So, that’s why there are many, many differences of opinion but they converge into one.
In terms of politicians, they need to listen and pay attention to scientific advice. I come from a scientific background, and before I’m a politician I will always be a medical doctor, and will try to use the evidence that is out there and incorporate it into my role as a politician, because that’s how I believe I can add to the field.
There has been some hiding behind some scientific or technical decisions. For instance, Sweden’s response was not based on the science, but was based on the technical part. It was just one of the strategies. Now, they have said it hasn’t gone according to plan, as many others in the scientific community were saying, but that’s how it goes for science.
What we need is to give scientists a bigger spotlight and bigger stages [to communicate with the public]. For instance, in Portugal, I’ve seen so many political commentators analysing epidemiological curves, and I’m there watching the TV and am just shivering in my chair because I know so many colleagues – epidemiologists, medical doctors – that have the technical tools to analyse those tools that those political commentators do not have.
So, science is not something that just anyone can talk about, and we as politicians need to make sure who is conveying the message to the public, otherwise we are going to have a lot of misinformation arising, and so many people are already spreading inaccurate information about the pandemic. We need to convey information in the most assertive way possible, that is my message. I truly believe we need to give the stage to those that are most qualified to speak on different topics.
For another perspective, we put the same comment to Lidia Borrell-Damian, Secretary General of Science Europe, an association representing major public research organisations who fund or perform scientific research in Europe. What would she say?
Who should decide COVID-19 measures: scientists or politicians? Are politicians making decisions or “hiding behind” science? How can scientific advice best be incorporated into the policymaking process? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!