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Science and Policy in Extremis: The UK’s Initial Response to COVID-19


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Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs 

Center for European Studies 


Science and Policy in Extremis: The UK’s Initial Response to COVID-19 

Drawing on the British Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) minutes and other documents, I consider the wider lessons for norms of scientific advising that can be learned from the UK’s initial response to coronavirus in the period January–March 2020, when an initial strategy that planned to avoid total suppression of transmission was abruptly replaced by an aggressive suppression strategy. I argue that SAGE’s major mistake in early 2020 was not that of being insufficiently precautionary, but that of relying too heavily on a specific set of “reasonable worst-case” planning assumptions. I formulate some proposals that assign a more circumscribed role to “worst-case” thinking in emergency planning. 

Jonathan Birch
Associate Professor of Philosophy
London School of Economics and Political Science 

Dr Jonathan Birch is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the LSE and Principal Investigator (PI) on the Foundations of Animal Sentience project. In addition to his interest in animal sentience, cognition and welfare, he also has a longstanding interest in the evolution of altruism and social behaviour. He joined the LSE in 2014. Before moving to London, he was a Junior Research Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2013, with a dissertation entitled Kin Selection: A Philosophical Analysis. He has published widely on various topics in the philosophy of the biological sciences, in journals such as Current Biology, The American Naturalist, Biological Reviews, Philosophy of Science, and The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. His first book, The Philosophy of Social Evolution, was published by Oxford University Press in 2017. In 2014, he was one of four UK philosophers honoured with a Philip Leverhulme Prize, which recognize “the achievement of outstanding researchers whose work has already attracted international recognition and whose future career is exceptionally promising”.

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