Theme: Government & Parliament | Content Type: Interview

"We Need to Learn How to Talk About Risk and Trade-Offs in the Coronavirus Crisis": Interview with Lawrence Freedman

Anya Pearson


Ashkan Forouzani

| 15 mins read

Sir Lawrence David Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College London. He has been described as the "dean of British strategic studies", and was a member of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. Anya Pearson interviews him about the government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak, focusing on the importance of a public conversation about risks and trade-offs, and why 'exit strategy' is a "nonsense term".

Anya Pearson: Alastair Campbell has written a blistering critique of the government’s communications errors during the coronavirus crisis – including lack of apology for past mistakes in dealing with the outbreak and not treating the public like adults. What’s your take on government communications thus far?

Lawrence Freedman: I have some sympathy with Alistair Campbell's arguments in two respects. First, it took a while for the government to get their communications sorted, though they did raise their game from the occasional statement to a proper press conference. Second, Campbell is right that we do need proper briefings. But the science is complicated. I don't blame government for struggling to keep up, but they should explain the doubts and uncertainties.

For example, there are very good reasons to open schools as soon as possible. One of the questions is: what is the rate of transmission and illness among under tens? If you set out what’s known and what isn’t known, you’ve got a way of bringing people along with you.

But the journalists haven’t quite got the tone right either. It always strikes me that when you move off social media, the mood is different – less shouty and angry. Plus, the journalists are not very forensic. If you don't ask precise questions, you're not going to get precise answers. Keir Starmer was far better [than most journalists have been] in parliamentary questions last week.

An important reality of policymaking is that it is never based on scientific truths. Rather, it's based on the economic and political judgements that are made in a crisis, not just ‘the science’. So with that in mind, what do you think should guide government when they make decisions on issues where the science is complex and ambiguous?

It's all about risk. Data coming through from Italy was more alarming than China and that changed perceptions about the disease. You need a timely discussion of new information as it comes. Models are just models. If it's rubbish in, it's rubbish out – they can only refine as the information improves. Scientists are making best guesses – that needs to be understood. 

When I was doing [the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war], one of the things that struck me was the wrong questions were being asked. To give an example, if you ask the Intelligence Agencies: “Supposing they’ve got chemical weapons, how would they use them in the event of war?” You get an alarming answer. But if you ask: “How sure are you they’ve got chemical weapons?” You get a different answer. Politicians are not just passive recipients of advice. It’s about asking good questions and trying to think through the implications. 

One of the problems is there was a critical period, 9 –16 March, when scientists were trying to come up with a policy that didn’t shut down the whole economy. That's not an unreasonable thing to try and do. But in retrospect, we can see the more you shut down your economy and society, you suppress (at least in this stage) the virus much more effectively. 

So on 9 March, Italy was just starting to do that. People think the lockdown measures happened earlier than that, but they didn’t, apart from in China. We were still trying to see if there was a way by which you would cocoon the elderly and vulnerable, encourage social distancing, and leave it at that. Now, again with retrospect you can see that was never going to work – partly because we don't actually seem to have immunity building up, but also because it’s very difficult to protect the elderly. 

The problem was, on 12 March, a key announcement to cocoon the elderly was supposed to be announced – but it wasn't. Instead government advisers and others started talking about herd immunity. It's a perfectly legitimate concept in epidemiology, but it sounded a bit callous. Then over the weekend, after speaking to the Imperial team, government changed the policy and that was announced on 16 March. The pressure was then to follow what everyone else was doing.

Anyway, people took things into their own hands. Football matches got cancelled. People stopped going to restaurants. It gave the impression that the government was following rather than leading. They had lost control. 

They were not incompetent, but I do think they were too into the scientific advice and strategy to ask the questions about whether it would work, because it would have been so much better if it had worked. Japan and Sweden remain interesting cases, where something similar to what we had in mind then, is being followed. 

The public would get nervous if they saw other governments doing things that could spare lives. That's a political judgement, but it's very relevant to how you manage a pandemic, because you have to keep the public with you. The policy wasn't inherently foolish, but it wasn't being assessed by the right criteria. That's possibly because Boris Johnson was quite comfortable with the message that maybe you could spare the economy and society some of the blows that have since been inflicted. 

Is Boris Johnson's own attitude to illness a factor in his policymaking? 

Presumably his attitude to illness has changed now! He has an optimistic schtick – he doesn’t like to be the bearer of bad news. But again, it's about learning how to talk about risk and trade-offs. Explain the dilemmas that politicians are facing, then maybe you’ve got a better chance of the public going along with you. 

We lost a few days. I wouldn’t put it at more than that. But it makes a difference. 

What does an effective opposition from Labour look like during a pandemic? 

Kier Starmer got the tone right – partly just in contrast with [Jeremy Corbyn]. It shows what we've been missing for five years. 

I'm stuck in my house, so I don't claim to be in touch with public opinion. But my sense is, people want the unifying aspects of the challenge. So if Starmer had tried to shout at the government, it would have jarred. Actually the crisis suits his talents quite well. It requires forensic questions from the opposition, and being prepared to accept the answers if they're fair. I do hope now parliament is back, we’ll get some more movement on broadening the debate and discussing what the options are.

For example, the refusal of the government to contemplate any delay to the Brexit timetable is just bizarre – even to a lot of Brexiteers. So Starmer should be able to push on that with a series of practical questions. 

Herd immunity is a serious possible strategy but it risks overwhelming the NHS. Is that the only problem or objection, do you think?

It's an epidemiological term that the public had never heard it before, and it sounds a bit callous. But the issue is a very real one: either you have a vaccine, or you rely on people building up natural immunity. Until we have a vaccine, we're in trouble. The government got herd immunity wrong but the motivations weren’t bad. The question is: at what point did they realise that this was not going to work? Why did they present it in such a cack-handed way? 

You mentioned the importance of broadening the debate on coronavirus. What topics do you wish were getting more airtime?

First, we’re very preoccupied with things that are understandably important, especially PPE. But we also know the problem with that. We started this whole business without diagnostics, without PPE and respirator producing industries and our NHS at peak capacity. So it's not surprising that we have scrambled. There probably were administrative and procurement failures early on, but it's a long failure.

The second thing is: stop making these death comparisons. They're morbid, and no [other country] has got accurate death figures. Ours aren’t accurate. With 50 per cent of those dying over 80, it’s not surprising a lot of deaths have been missed. But the WHO has just said that half the deaths in Europe are going to be in care homes. There is a European-wide issue; there's no point having little graphs comparing us to New Zealand. It’s as if there’s going to be a winner!

This is just the start. If we're to somehow get our countries back and working again, there are going to be lots of little outbreaks. We've got to get out of our heads that this is something that's going to be 'over soon'. We've got to think about how we live without being able to get close to each other for a long time – for a city like London or Paris, this is calamitous. 

Third, we need to start talking about what's going to happen in the developing world. We've got to hope that it may not be as bad as previous epidemics because they have young populations, as many places don’t have respirators. 

Lastly, we barely can imagine what coronavirus has done to our economy. How do you revive economies when whole industries like theatre and air travel are going to be disappearing? With lots of people out of work and businesses collapsing, there won't be a rush to resume spending. The national debt is enormous. Solidarity within the EU has been sorely strained. What does a revived economy look like? These things are bigger than the last six weeks, but we can’t get our heads around what they will entail.

The American economist Robert Johnson has said the pandemic has broken the paradigm, forcing us to completely reassess what makes good economics not just in times of crisis but looking forward.

We'll think of things as being pre- and post-pandemic. Maybe it's not going to be the liberal capitalist model again, but neither will it be simple state socialism. It’ll be something different. This could change once you get a vaccine and people feel safe again.

Is the idea of an exit strategy a myth? 

Well, it’s a nonsense term. It's a military term from humanitarian intervention in the 1990s, when the Americans said "We'll only go in if you tell us how we'll leave". But the 'exit strategies' never worked, because you never really know. Strategy is about dealing with a problem and moving to the next stage. And the next stage of coronavirus will be different from this stage, though not that different. And the next stage will be different again. 

Rather than talk about an exit strategy, which creates expectations that are not going to be delivered, we should talk about how we do we move progressively out of the current lockdown. Should over-70s stay at home while kids go back to school? How do you do contact tracing, which is not as easy as people assume? 

You write in the New Statesman that "We should veer away from the language of conflict and think in terms of cooperation in a global effort" I love that – how might it be achieved?  

A lot of the scientific work is global and collaborative, though the Chinese are starting to censor scientific papers on the grounds that they might challenge the narrative of the Chinese government. When somebody comes up with a vaccine, it won't suit anybody to keep it to themselves.

The 2008 financial crisis had a lot of economic coordination. I think it's going to be a lot more difficult this time, at least while Trump is in power. Europe is going to struggle just simply because of the problem of already indebted countries taking on even more debt. I think you'll get some financial transfers from the richer European countries to the poorer, but all of them are going to feel the pinch and have their tax bases eroded. Germany is doing well on the health side of things, but it's an export-dependent economy, so it may be worse hit than ours. In principle, you need the central banks to work together, the financial institutions. If they don't, they risk making things worse.