Coronavirus: Even scientists can’t agree on how society should fight COVID-19

Remember those early days in the COVID journey, where everyone talked about “following the science”?

Looking back, it seems almost childishly naïve.

Back then we were only just learning about concepts like “the R rate” or “T cell immunity,” and Zoom quizzes were a novel way to spend an evening rather than something to shudder about.

Now, six months after the first lockdown and facing rising infection levels again, we are cynical COVID-19 veterans.

We now know that our scientists – like our politicians – are fallible. They disagree. We can’t just blithely “follow the science” because there is no such thing as “the science” – just different interpretations of incomplete and untrustworthy evidence.

I’ve become acutely aware that we need to challenge our scientists in the same way that we challenge our politicians – asking them to explain their reasoning, putting alternative interpretations to them and listening to a range of views.

On Sophy Ridge on Sunday we’ll be trying something that we haven’t done before in the pandemic – asking two scientists to debate with one another.

Professor Sunetra Gupta is a professor of theoretical epidemiology at the University of Oxford. On Monday she signed an open letter along with 32 other scientists, arguing against local and national lockdowns and urging restrictions for those more vulnerable to the disease.

She believes that because 89% of COVID-19 deaths are in the over-65 group and those with pre-existing medical conditions are also vulnerable, they should be subject to tighter restrictions while those who are less at risk should be allowed to continue life in a less restricted way.

This point of view is extremely inflammatory within the scientific community. Some in rival camps are reluctant to even debate with each other, for fear of legitimising their view point.

A second letter was issued by 22 scientists, headed by Dr Trisha Greenhalgh of Oxford University, arguing that it is simply not possible to isolate those most at risk from the rest of the population. A “herd immunity” strategy – where the vulnerable are shielded and we are relaxed about others who are infected – is too risky when we don’t know how long immunity lasts for.

Steven Riley, professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial College, is concerned about judging the strength of immunity before we have more evidence. He believes that until we have a vaccine or successful treatment, we must be prepared to reduce our social contacts.

What data should we trust? How should we weigh up the costs of COVID-19 against the economic costs? Should we factor in the cost to our mental wellbeing? Can we draw lessons from other countries or are their challenges too different?

The data sets may be the same, but the conclusions drawn will be deeply personal.

If you thought the policy debate between politicians was fiery, it’s nothing compared to the rows raging among scientists. And you can understand the strength of feeling. Lives are on the line. The stakes could not be higher.

:: Watch Sophy Ridge On Sunday live from 8.30am on Sunday, followed by Sophy Ridge: The Take at 9.30am

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