Analysing the ‘follow the science’ rhetoric of government responses to COVID-19

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Margaret MacAulay University of Ottawa and York University, Canada

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Patrick Fafard University of Ottawa and York University, Canada

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Adèle Cassola University of Ottawa and York University, Canada

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Michèle Palkovits University of Ottawa and York University, Canada

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At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many leaders claimed that their public health policy decisions were ‘following the science’; however, the literature on evidence-based policy problematises the idea that this is a realistic or desirable form of governance. This article examines why leaders make such claims using blame avoidance theory. Based on a qualitative content analysis of two national newspapers in each of Australia, Canada and the UK, we gathered and focused on unique moments when leaders claimed to ‘follow the science’ in the first six months of the pandemic. We applied Hood’s theory to identify the types of blame avoidance strategies used for issues such as mass event cancellation, border closures, face masks, and in-person learning. Politicians most commonly used ‘follow the science’ to deflect blame onto processes and people. When leaders’ claims to ‘follow the science’ confuse the public as to who chooses and who should be held accountable for those decisions, this slogan risks undermining trust in science, scientific advisors, and, at its most extreme, representative government. This article addresses a gap in the literature on blame avoidance and the relationship between scientific evidence and public policy by demonstrating how governments’ claims to ‘follow the science’ mitigated blame by abdicating responsibility, thus risking undermining the use of scientific advice in policymaking.

Abstract

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many leaders claimed that their public health policy decisions were ‘following the science’; however, the literature on evidence-based policy problematises the idea that this is a realistic or desirable form of governance. This article examines why leaders make such claims using Christopher Hood’s (2011) blame avoidance theory. Based on a qualitative content analysis of two national newspapers in each of Australia, Canada and the UK, we gathered and focused on unique moments when leaders claimed to ‘follow the science’ in the first six months of the pandemic. We applied Hood’s theory to identify the types of blame avoidance strategies used for issues such as mass event cancellation, border closures, face masks, and in-person learning. Politicians most commonly used ‘follow the science’ to deflect blame onto processes and people. When leaders’ claims to ‘follow the science’ confuse the public as to who chooses and who should be held accountable for those decisions, this slogan risks undermining trust in science, scientific advisors, and, at its most extreme, representative government. This article addresses a gap in the literature on blame avoidance and the relationship between scientific evidence and public policy by demonstrating how governments’ claims to ‘follow the science’ mitigated blame by abdicating responsibility, thus risking undermining the use of scientific advice in policymaking.

Introduction

In 2020, the phrase ‘following the science’ went viral, as politicians presented their COVID-19 policy decisions as based on evidence rather than public opinion or ‘politics’ (Alwakeel and Demianyk, 2020). However, questions remain about why political leaders insisted they were using science to inform policymaking – and with what implications. This article examines politicians’ use of the phrase ‘following the science’ in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom (UK) during the early months of the pandemic (March–September 2020).1 We use blame theory (Hood, 2011) to account for why leaders claimed to be ‘following the science’. Our analysis suggests that politicians invoked science to delay and justify decision-making on scientifically-contested and politically-risky issues such as mass event cancellations, school closures, border restrictions and mask mandates. We conclude that this rhetorical choice has serious implications for governments’ abilities to manage pandemics effectively, for the chief medical officer role, and, more generally, for the convention of ministerial responsibility.

The paradox of claims to be ‘following the science’

For much of 2020, as governments around the world scrambled to respond to the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases, political leaders in many high-income countries mobilised existing public health advisory systems, created new ones on the fly, and were bombarded with advice from scientists in universities and the private sector. What followed were repeated promises from political leaders that their decisions were based on the best available evidence and the advice from their science and public health advisors – in other words, that they were ‘following the science’.

There have been several efforts to contextualise and critique these claims. First, in public health emergencies, elected leaders often legitimise difficult and controversial decisions by attributing them to expert advice (Gleave, 2021; Hodges et al, 2022; Jarman et al, 2022). Second, the ‘science’ informing scientific advice and government policy is incomplete, contested, and constantly changing as we learn more about COVID-19, response effectiveness, and the diversity of scientific expertise required (Zahariadis et al, 2020; Lohse and Canali, 2021; Bhatia et al, 2023). Finally, government science advisors have been criticised for not basing their advice on what is thought to be the best available evidence (Contandriopoulos, 2021; Greenhalgh et al, 2021; Horton, 2022; Koch and Durodié, 2022).

While these studies critique leaders’ claims to be ‘following the science’, the critical literature on evidence-based policymaking (EBPM) explains why leaders make these claims – and why this is problematic. Influenced by the evidence-based medicine movement and its adoption within public health (Cairney and Oliver, 2017; Hawkins and Ettelt, 2019), EBPM presumes that ‘what works’ (Davies et al, 2012) in the scientific literature directly applies to policy decisions (Smith, 2013; Cairney, 2016; Fafard and Hoffman, 2020; Oliver, 2022). Privileging scientific evidence and presuming that its increased use in policymaking produces better outcomes than other ways of knowing is a highly controversial claim (Oliver et al, 2014). Political leaders make such claims because of their appeal to citizens and scientists who are frustrated with policy choices that appear to privilege elite and political interests. Publics may then perceive politics as obstructing science-based governance (Smith, 2013) and welcome the use of scientific evidence – seen as authoritative, impartial, and producing superior forms of knowledge.

Scientific evidence – which is ‘rarely so definitive or robust that [it] rules out alternative interpretations or emphases’ (Hunter, 2009: 586; see also Lancaster et al, 2020) – cannot tell policymakers what to do (Greenhalgh and Russell, 2009; Hunter, 2009; Cairney, 2016; Cassola et al, 2022a). Instead, scientific advisors use expert judgement and interpretation to translate data into policy advice (Jasanoff, 1990; Cairney, 2016; Cairney and Oliver, 2017). Although scientific evidence does and should inform public health policymaking, policy decisions are rarely based on single inputs (Parkhurst, 2017; Fafard and Hoffman, 2020) as real-world factors such as time constraints, political values, interest groups, media and public opinion are routine considerations (Hawkins and Parkhurst, 2016; Masood et al, 2020; Bandola-Gill, 2021; Cassola et al, 2022b). The COVID-19 pandemic also demonstrates how decision-makers regularly make choices in the absence of evidence (Hunter, 2009; Williams et al, 2020: 360; Parviainen et al, 2021; Evans, 2022) or despite it (Lowery et al, 2021).

Evidence-based policymaking is not just difficult – it can also be undemocratic. Science alone cannot provide the guidance required to manage the normative conflicts that underline policy choices in liberal democracies (Douglas, 2009; Pamuk, 2021; Jasanoff, 2022). In parliamentary democracies, the constitutional convention of ministerial responsibility means that the Prime Minister and Cabinet must take full responsibility for the decisions they make. Claiming to be ‘just following the science’ represents an attempt to depoliticise policymaking (Kettell and Kerr, 2022), and delegating responsibility to others veers into technocracy when it gives unelected experts disproportionate influence in decision-making.

If ‘just following the science’ is untenable and undemocratic, why, then, do leaders insist that science determined their policy decisions? In what follows, we argue that this is an exercise in blame avoidance – a blame game that has serious implications for democratic public health governance.

Blame avoidance and blame games

The body of research on blame avoidance in liberal democracies begins with Weaver articulating a set of blame avoidance strategies to explain politicians’ behaviours (Weaver, 1986; 2018). This focus on blame games has continued to be an object of considerable inquiry (Hood, 2011; Ruiter and Kuipers, 2022). Hinterleitner and colleagues developed a formal comparative model of political blame games (Hinterleitner and Sager, 2015; Hinterleitner, 2020), explored how they are structured by political institutions, and examined the implications for the ability of political systems to translate citizen preferences into policy (Hinterleitner and Sager, 2022; Hinterleitner, 2023). Although a great deal of work examines when political actors initiate blame games, the specific role of crises, the harms that must be accounted for, and the impact of a political actor’s pre-crisis reputation, considerably less research exists on blame avoidance involving non-partisan government advisors (Resodihardjo, 2023).

In a pandemic context, blame avoidance frameworks have been used to review political blame games in Greece and Turkey (Zahariadis et al, 2020) and outgroup scapegoating in the United States (Porumbescu et al, 2022). A recent article examined efforts to shift blame to lower orders of government, to citizens, and to outside experts in Switzerland (Hinterleitner et al, 2023). Flinders (2021) suggests that political leaders’ blame avoidance strategies involve ‘hugging the experts’ (p 490) and asks about the implications when these same experts become ‘blame shiftees or sacrificial lambs’ (p 491). Yet there are, to our knowledge, no studies of blame games involving expert advisors inside government in a pandemic context. To address this gap, we deploy Hood’s original framework to explore precisely how government advisors have been drawn into blame games during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hood’s (2011) account of blame avoidance explains why politicians claim to be ‘following the science’. With publics governed by a strong negativity bias that ‘value[s] losses more highly than gains’ (Hood, 2011: 9), politicians often emphasise successes to claim credit and downplay failures to mitigate blame. Hood suggests that blame arises when there is a perceived avoidable harm and/or a perceived responsible agent. Politicians are more likely to be blamed (and blame others) when levels of perceived avoidable harm and/or responsibility are high, typically employing one or more of the following blame-avoidance approaches: 1) agency-based strategies that direct blame to others or external factors; 2) policy-based strategies that diffuse blame onto processes or practices; and/or 3) presentational strategies that minimise the blameworthy nature of a situation (see Tables 13; Hood, 2011). We explain these strategies further next.

Agency-based strategies

Table 1:

Agency-based blame avoidance strategies

Approach Strategy Description Example
Agency Minimising blame by directing responsibility to institutions and/or individuals Delegation Formally assigning or giving the appearance of assigning decision-making on difficult issues to others Increasing chief medical officers’ decision-making powers or attributing political decisions to their advice
Government by market Blaming poor outcomes on external forces beyond officeholders’ control Attributing errors in judgement to an uncontrollable virus
Partnership structures Leveraging working partnerships, multi-agency arrangements or institutional machinery to diffuse or make blame disappear Assigning joint responsibility for decision-making between groups
Defensive organisation and staff rotation Frequently changing organisational leadership so that current leaders cannot be blamed Blaming mistakes on past leaders or organisational structures

Agency-based approaches shift responsibility onto something or someone else. Politicians may officially delegate responsibilities to others or make them appear to be responsible for decisions, such as when leaders overstate the role of scientific advisors in decision-making. Alternatively, leaders may use ‘government by market’ strategies to shift blame onto external, impersonal, and impartial forces like market conditions or, in the case of COVID-19, scientific uncertainty.

Agency-based approaches may also involve partnership strategies that use shared responsibility and organisational complexity to blur lines of accountability, with the privatisation of public functions, for example, helping governments blame private firms when a blameworthy event occurs. Blame avoidance may also involve defensive organisation and staff rotation, when ministers reject blame by claiming the blameworthy event happened before their time.

Policy or operational strategies

Table 2:

Policy-based blame avoidance strategies

Approach Strategy Description Example
Policy

Selecting policies or operating routines that minimise risk of institutional or individual liability and blame
Protocolisation Substituting rules, guidelines or best practices for judgement and discretion Claims that policy decisions will follow the chief medical officer’s ‘rules’
Abstinence Choosing a no-blame or least-blame option Not making any decision or announcement
Individualisation Deflecting blame onto individuals or groups Blaming COVID-19 transmission on ‘reckless’ behaviours
Herding Taking a ‘safety in numbers’ approach to decision-making to collectivise blame Emphasising collective decision-making rather than accepting individual responsibility

Where agency-based strategies mitigate blame by shifting responsibility onto other people or factors, policy-based approaches rely on procedures or practices. Protocolisation involves leaders substituting ‘rules or best practice guidelines… blessed by hierarchic or scientific authority’ for professional decision-making (Hood, 2011: 92). This can mean using the presence or absence of scientific evidence to justify policies that defy ‘common sense or intelligent professional judgment’ (p 164). Alternatively, leaders may use abstinence strategies (Hood, 2011) to take the least or no-blame approach. This occurs when leaders avoid changing public health policies to avoid blame for undesirable outcomes.

Individualisation can help leaders avoid blame when they choose laissez-faire public health policies that later allow them to blame citizens for poor outcomes such as increased infections. Alternately, leaders may use herding strategies to ‘blunt [blame] by collectivising it’(p 112), deploying ‘safety in numbers’ or ‘decision-by-committee’ approaches to pool risk and diffuse accountability. Emphasising the collective nature of decision-making allows politicians to diffuse blame and avoid any individual or department being singled out.

Presentational strategies

Table 3:

Presentational blame avoidance strategies

Approach Strategy Definition Example
Presentational

Minimising blame by modifying the perceived avoidable harm dimension
Winning the argument Offering persuasive excuses and justifications Emphasising schools as safe environments to deflect parents’ concerns
Changing the subject Distracting publics from the issue Making press conference announcements late Friday afternoon
Drawing a line Diffusing criticism Pre-emptively apologising or apologising after the fact
Keeping a low profile Keeping out of the spotlight until the situation de-escalates Being unavailable for comment

Where agency- and policy-based strategies address the perceived responsibility dimension of blame, presentational strategies attempt to minimise perceived avoidable harms through diminishment, denial, or distraction. Examples of active strategies include using ‘winning the argument’ efforts by providing excuses that emphasise uncontrollable factors (for example, ‘we followed the scientific advice at the time’); offering justifications to spin critiques as ‘evidence of a good thing’ (for example, ‘best year ever’); denying that problems exist; or adjusting the facts to suit the view of the situation they wish to publicly convey (for example, overstating claims about the safety or harms of in-person learning). Less active presentational strategies involve changing the subject and keeping a low profile, such as when, amid controversy, political leaders are suddenly away or unavailable for comment.

Hood’s work is useful because it focuses, for the most part, on how politicians avoid blame for the departments or agencies they oversee. Although his work does not explicitly focus on the role of scientific advice, it offers important ways to consider the function of claims to ‘follow the science’ in policymaking as well as their democratic implications. It also helps us answer the question: How have politicians used the rhetoric of ‘following the science’, in the context of COVID-19 public health policymaking, and to what effect?

Methodology

Sampling

To rapidly identify moments when politicians in Australia, Canada and the UK claimed to ‘follow the science’ in public discourse about COVID-19, we used the Factiva database to sample two major national newspapers from each jurisdiction listed in Table 4. To ensure coverage of the French-speaking Canadian province of Québec, we also used the Eureka.cc database to gather relevant news articles from the French-language newspaper La Presse. Because our objective was to focus on what leaders said (rather than what was said about them), we selected major newspapers that had the resources and an editorial commitment to cover regular press conferences involving politicians and their advisors. Publication ownership and/or ideological leanings were not part of the selection criteria.

Table 4:

News publications included in analysis

Jurisdiction Factiva Eureka
Australia Australian, Australian Financial Review
Canada Globe and Mail, Toronto Star La Presse (Québec)
United Kingdom Guardian, Telegraph

Using search terms that included the names of leaders and their health ministers/secretaries (for example, Johnson, Hancock; Trudeau, Hajdu), their titles (for example, Minister/Ministre, Premier) and variants of the phrase ‘follow the science’ (including terms such as ‘guided’, ‘led’, and ‘listening’, ‘health advice’, and ‘evidence’2), we gathered coverage about COVID-19 during the period 1 March–1 September 2020. Excluding duplicates, our initial search yielded 678 articles.

After review, we identified 42 unique articles discussing 70 unique instances of elected leaders claiming to ‘follow the science’. Whenever possible, we sourced the original item by visiting government websites (n= 17) or web platforms like YouTube or Facebook and public transcription websites such as Rev.com (n=37). Although Table 5 provides a breakdown of events across jurisdictions and formats for transparency and interest, our analysis was not comparative, and our qualitative methodology does not allow for claims regarding statistically significant differences in their frequency by country.

Table 5:

Number of events where politicians claimed to ‘follow the science’, by country and genre

Jurisdiction Press conference transcripts or releases or excerpts quoted

in news article
Media statements or interviews Parliamentary statements or parliamentary committee

appearances
Statements or speeches to public Total
United Kingdom 17 15 6 3 41
Canada 17 1 18
Australia 7 3 1 11
Total 41 18 7 4 70

Data analysis

Using NVivo, we conducted a qualitative content analysis – ‘a research method for the subjective interpretation of the content of text data through the systematic classification process of coding and identifying themes or patterns’ (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005) – of statements made in news coverage using categories from Hood’s blame theory. Given the complexity of political communication and the overlap between categories, we coded some statements in multiple ways (that is, as a combination of agency-, policy-, or presentational-based strategies) and defined the primary locus of blame avoidance on infection rates (as opposed to economic consequences). The lead authors presented preliminary findings to co-authors for discussion until we reached consensus.

Results

Our results suggest that politicians most frequently used protocolisation (policy) and delegation (agency) strategies when they claimed to be ‘following the science’, particularly in the initial weeks of the pandemic. Protocolisation and delegation on early issues such as mass events, border controls, and masking later gave way to more delegation, herding and ‘winning the argument’ strategies to excuse and/or justify questionable or unpopular decisions on issues such as in-person learning, pandemic management and border closures.

Table 6 summarises the strategies across jurisdictions. The comparatively low frequency of presentational strategies in comparison to policy and agency strategies may be related to the timeframe analysed. Given Hood’s observation that leaders typically use policy and agency strategies before a blame-attracting event, and presentational strategies in reaction to one, it makes sense that leaders would use policy and agency strategies more frequently than presentational ones in the initial months of the pandemic.

Table 6:

Proportion of blame avoidance strategies used in media coverage, by jurisdiction

Jurisdiction Blame avoidance strategy
Policy Policy–Agency Agency Agency– Presentational Presentational Presentational–Policy All
UK 54.55% 13.94% 18.18% 2.42% 1.21% 4.24% 5.45%
CAN 49.02% 23.53% 25.49% 1.96% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
AUS 29.41% 14.71% 47.06% 5.88% 0.00% 0.00% 2.94%

At the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, many governments rhetorically delegated responsibility to scientific experts to justify decisions on mass events and schools. For example, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on 12 March that public event organisers ‘should take the health advice’ from Australia’s Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) (which is composed of national/state/territory CMOs), arguing that ‘there [had] been no suggestions’ to cancel events (Zhou et al, 2020). Minister Greg Hunt echoed this, stating that CMOs had ‘not indicated that there [were] grounds’ to cancel mass events and that leaders were ‘working with authorities’ and using ‘the world’s best medical advice’ to inform decision-making (Doorstop Interview, 2020). Leaders downplayed their own roles as decision-makers by positioning their CMOs as guiding policy and themselves as following CMOs’ orders.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson used a similar approach during his infamous ‘herd immunity’ press conference on 12 March. Stating that his government had ‘done what can be done to contain this disease’, Johnson used delegation (agency) and winning the argument (presentational) strategies when citing ‘scientific advice’ that cancelling public events and closing schools would have ‘little effect on the spread’ and could ‘do more harm than good’ (Prime Minister’s Statement, 2020). Like his Australian counterparts, Johnson mobilised scientific credibility and uncertainty to avoid blame by minimising his role as a decision-maker.

Canadian leaders used protocolisation (policy) to justify their initial decisions against restricting travel. On 11 March, Minister Patty Hajdu said that ‘Canada’s approach from the very beginning [was] to use science and evidence’ and that she was following World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations to use targeted measures instead (Standing Committee, 2020). By mobilising the WHO’s scientific authority and credibility, Hajdu presented public health policymaking as a purely scientific process.

Leaders sometimes acknowledged the role of non-scientific factors in decision-making, however. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did so on 13 March when explaining why Canada’s stance on international travel differed from other countries. Stating that each country’s experts provide ‘advice that is suitable for their own situation’ and that the government had received ‘the right recommendations for Canada’ (Rev.com, 2020a), Trudeau acknowledged the complexity of public health policymaking – albeit without specifying what makes scientific advice malleable across national contexts.

By April 2020, ‘the science’ helped some leaders pre-empt blame regarding masking. On 28 April, former UK Secretary Matt Hancock defended his government’s lack of a mask mandate by citing ‘weak science’ as well as the WHO’s view about reserving masks for priority groups (Rev.com, 2020b). That day, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also acknowledged the influence of non-scientific factors on mask mandates when stating that while she considered information from scientific advisors and her CMO (delegation), she also took into account anecdotal evidence regarding public adoption of masking and emphasised her ‘responsibility [in making] judgements based on the best evidence’ (Scottish Government, 2020). Ultimately, these examples demonstrate how leaders can acknowledge that practical concerns shape public health policymaking even while taking advantage of the rhetorical and strategic value of deferring to ‘the science’.

In April and May 2020, leaders in the Canadian provinces of Québec and Ontario used protocolisation (policy) and delegation (agency) to defend their re-opening plans. On 16 April, Québec Premier Francois Legault used delegation (agency) when explaining that re-opening would happen ‘in a gradual, intelligent manner that follows all of [CMO] Dr. Arruda’s rules’, emphasising the centrality of his CMO’s advice (Assemblée Nationale du Québec, 2020b). Legault later used protocolisation (policy) on May 11 to explain that his government would ‘follow the science’, ‘follow the data’, and ‘not take risks’, encouraging publics to ‘trust the science’ and stating that re-opening would only happen when ‘public health tells me to’ (Assemblée Nationale du Québec, 2020c). By using the rhetoric of science and evidence to frame re-opening as externally- and expert-driven, Legault depoliticised his decision-making role and the policymaking process.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford made similar comments on 30 April. Claiming to be ‘laser focused’ on re-opening ‘as quickly as we can’, he stated that it would happen ‘as it [became] safe to do so based on health and science’ (Ontario Government, 2020). Not wanting to ‘rush’, Ford added that ‘when we get that greenlight from the [CMO] and our health team to move forward, we’re moving’. By framing public health and the CMO as having the final say on decisions, this act of delegation attempted to deflect blame by giving the impression that scientific evidence alone dictated re-opening plans.

As leaders across jurisdictions found their decisions surrounding in-person learning subject to controversy in April 2020, their appeals to scientific evidence intensified. On 27 April, Québec Premier François Legault delegated responsibility (agency) when explaining that re-opening schools had received ‘the OK from public health’ and that it ‘was not a gut decision there, it was the science’. Stating that he had ‘listen[ed] to the science and the science [said]’ that school re-openings were possible ‘if the situation [remained] under control’, Legault granted agency to science (Assemblée Nationale du Québec, 2020a). The next day, former UK Secretary Gavin Williamson used a similar approach, telling a parliamentary committee that the government was ‘making sure’ that re-opening schools would be ‘done in the best possible way with the very best scientific and medical advice’ from expert groups (Education Committee, 2020). This reinforced the impression that public health advisors and scientists are decision-makers rather than elected leaders.

In Australia, ‘following the health advice’ on schools became politicised when the state of Victoria was the only jurisdiction to close schools. On 15 April, then-Victorian Minister James Merlino used delegation (agency) to argue that his government’s ‘message [had] been consistent right along, based on the expert health advice of Victoria’s Chief Health Officer’ (Visontay et al, 2020). However, the following day Commonwealth Minister Greg Hunt attempted to win the argument (presentational) and defend keeping schools open by citing AHPPC advice that ‘schools are safe for children’. When asked whether the contradictory messaging might confuse the public, Hunt acknowledged that while ‘different states may take different views’, the public health expert panel’s advice had been ‘unanimous’ (Hunt, 2020). Reflecting Hood’s suggestion that drawing on unanimity has become a gold standard in decision-making (Hood, 2011), Hunt’s comment made science advice on in-person learning seem monolithic rather than contested. It also gave the impression that policy variation comes only from elected officials, and not from competing views among scientists (Zielonka, 2021).

Some leaders also mobilised ‘the science’ to justify decisions that attracted blame. On 28 April, former UK Home Secretary Priti Patel used herding (policy) to explain to a parliamentary committee why her department had not yet implemented traveller restrictions. Stating that the decision was ‘made collectively’ with groups such as the Department of Transport, SAGE and Public Health England (Home Affairs Committee, 2020), Patel’s statements gave the impression that advisory groups and government departments play an equal role in decision-making. Emphasising decision-making as a ‘collective’ process also makes it difficult to identify whom to blame when things go wrong (Hood, 2011).

That day, former UK Secretary Matt Hancock combined government by science (agency) with winning the argument (presentational) strategies when justifying his decision to allow the March 2020 Cheltenham Festival to occur. Explaining that his government ‘followed the scientific advice’ (characterised as initially ‘quite clear’ but had become ‘clearly wrong’) and ‘took the right measures at the right time’, Hancock emphasised that the UK was ‘ahead of many other countries in Europe’ at the time (Ferrari, 2020). These statements blamed scientific advice rather than errors in judgement for the decision, while also downplaying its perceived harms.

Another example appeared in a 29 May news story documenting the UK government’s missteps with respect to visitor policies and personal protective equipment in long-term care homes. Despite the extensive illness and deaths that followed, a government spokesperson defended these decisions as ‘right’ for the time. The government had ‘based all [their] decisions on the latest scientific advice’, while ‘nearly two thirds of care homes have had no outbreak at all’ (Booth, 2020). Attempting to win the argument (presentational) by emphasising its successes over its failures and using adherence to scientific advice as a ‘back-covering alibi’ (Hood, 2011: 147), the UK government minimised its role in the decision and its consequences.

While governments in the UK and in Canada used science to justify keeping borders open at the outset of the pandemic, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk of Queensland, Australia used it to justify keeping hers closed throughout summer 2020. With the government formally granting decision-making power (delegation) to its CMO Dr Jeannette Young in March 2020 (Robertson, 2021), Palaszczuk used a winning the argument (presentational) strategy to defend border closures by stating that Dr Young’s advice had put ‘Queensland in a very good position’ and that she refused to ‘be silenced for standing up for what [she believed was] right, for the health advice that [she was being] provided for by Dr. Young’ (Queensland Health Press Conference, 2020b). This placed the CMO directly at the centre of the controversy.

As public criticism of Palaszczuk continued, so did her efforts to emphasise the situation’s urgency and frame the decision as science-based. On 8 August, Palaszczuk used abstinence (policy) and winning the argument (presentational), stating that ‘we are in a world pandemic’ and arguing that ‘you only have to listen to the [WHO, who] are saying very clearly that every jurisdiction needs to protect its community’ (Queensland Health, 2020a). Such statements emphasised the perceived harms of keeping borders open while invoking WHO authority and credibility to distance decision-making from politics. It also demonstrates how as leaders’ decisions become more contested, their use of presentational strategies increases (Hood, 2011).

Discussion

In this article, we have demonstrated how political leaders in Australia, Canada and the UK deployed various blame-avoidance strategies in the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrating a pattern of using scientific advice to justify policy and programme choices. While it is one thing for leaders to reassure the public that they consider scientific and public health evidence in decision-making, it is another to claim that they are simply ‘following the science’. Although leaders make such claims to legitimise decisions and avoid blame, we argue that in reality, ‘following the science’ undermines government efforts, compromises the credibility of scientific advisors like the CMO, and is an abdication of responsibility that is, in the long run, damaging to the institutions of parliamentary democracy.

Our results suggest that claims of ‘following the science’ were often used as a form of delegation and protocolisation that justified ineffective or unpopular policies. Such claims emerged at the outset of the pandemic when leaders deferred to ‘the science’ to delay and lift public health restrictions and re-appeared when politicians later had to defend controversial decisions. One challenge arises from the fact that ‘the science’ is not nearly as straightforward, static or monolithic as the slogan suggests. Even during the first six months of the pandemic, the scientific understanding of the COVID-19 virus changed (as did the virus itself) – and so too did policy and programme implications. Second, unlike a routine and well-understood infectious disease outbreak where scientific consensus can become reasonably strong, COVID-19 remains subject to ongoing (and often sharp) disagreements between experts because the stakes are so high (Contandriopoulos, 2021; Greenhalgh et al, 2021).

When decision-makers attempt to pre-empt or deflect blame by claiming to follow a ‘science’ that is uncertain and unsettled, any short-term gain may come at the expense of their overall credibility if sceptical publics later find experts offering a competing (and compelling) narrative that matches their own. While governments like Australia, Canada and the UK were generally able to manage COVID-19 outbreaks despite the mobilisation of anti-government and anti-vaccination groups, the consequences of this mistrust might not appear until the next public health emergency (Algan et al, 2021).

Claims to be ‘following the science’ also undermine trust in ‘the science’ when scientific evidence and policy decisions inevitably change. In the early months of the pandemic, leaders frequently gave the impression that scientific evidence and the expert advisors who marshalled it could answer complex policy questions regarding issues such as borders, travel restrictions and masking. However, as science advice, the pandemic’s course and policy evolved, any perceived ‘flip-flopping’ bred confusion, cynicism and mistrust among those blaming CMOs for providing ‘bad advice’ (Gilmore, 2020; Mahal, 2020; Selley, 2020; Lilley, 2020). This was particularly acute in Canada, where a broader culture of secrecy and lack of transparency makes it more difficult to know and accept to what extent governments followed the scientific advice received (Campagnolo, 2021).

Moreover, leaders who claimed that their CMOs had ‘greenlit’ their decisions (Ontario Government, 2020) made it appear as if these advisors, rather than politicians, were in charge. Although CMOs influence government policy by providing advice and advocating to ministers behind the scenes, they are not the sole source of advice (French, 2018a) and do not make policy decisions (Cassola et al, 2022b). To suggest otherwise (or in the case of Queensland, do otherwise) contributes to CMOs’ scapegoating and direct attacks from frustrated citizens (Roberts, 2020; Salutin, 2020; Ilanbey, 2020; Joannou, 2021; Quinn, 2021). Given that the public generally trusts doctors and scientists more than politicians (Kennedy et al, 2020), it remains important for governments to avoid making claims that undermine the CMOs’ autonomy, their independence from government, and in the long run, the role itself.

At its most extreme, claims to ‘follow the science’ can also erode democratic institutions. In Westminster-style countries, such forms of blame avoidance subvert the convention of collective and ministerial responsibility, where ministers are both ‘collectively responsible’ for Cabinet decisions (Aucoin et al, 2004) and individually responsible for assigned powers and decisions under their portfolios. Using herding (policy) or partnership strategies (agency) to diffuse blame across departments and advisory groups undermines these conventions. Leaders’ mobilisation of ‘the science’ as a form of protocolisation (policy) represents an attempt to depoliticise policymaking (Kettell and Kerr, 2022), while delegation (agency) veers into technocracy when it gives unelected experts disproportionate influence in decision-making. This is especially concerning when it allows politicians to legitimise choices made on other grounds and insulate their decisions from democratic control and accountability (Hood, 2011; French, 2018b; Weible et al, 2020; Kettell and Kerr, 2022). This also illustrates the challenges of modern governance with respect to ministerial responsibility, particularly when it complicates who is and who is perceived to be making decisions.

Shifting blame onto public servants also threatens the bargain (Hood and Lodge 2006) between public servants and politicians, where the former provide ‘frank and fearless’ advice on the understanding that political leaders are ultimately responsible for decisions. Research suggests that in England, government scientific advisors expressed concern that politicians were trying to pass responsibility for decisions to them (Anderson et al, 2020), leading Atkinson and colleagues to argue that ‘politicians abdicated responsibility by their early “follow the science” rhetoric’ (Atkinson et al, 2021). Although the downward delegation of authority to agencies and departments has prompted conceptual and practical contestations of ministerial responsibility (Grube and Howard, 2016; Halligan, 2020), governments continue to formally recognise it and to emphasise formal decision-making authority and accountability. Elected leaders who pass blame onto unelected scientific advisers thus run the risk of further compromising the ability of the senior public service to inform and support cabinet decision-making.

Strengths and limitations

This study has several strengths. First, it addresses a gap in the literatures on blame avoidance and on the relationship between scientific evidence and public policy by examining a case of blame avoidance that involves non-partisan government advisors. Second, it contributes to the empirical understanding of pandemic responses by analysing political communication across three countries in the initial months of the COVID-19 crisis. Third, it generated a rich dataset for analysis by sampling print media communication to identify events where leaders claimed to ‘follow the science’.

This study also has limitations. Because we gathered politicians’ claims to ‘follow the science’ as they appeared in selected print media outlets, we did not capture every statement appearing in broadcast media or other official communications. Our search terms may have limited our data, although this was necessary to generate a manageable sample. Moreover, our sampling strategy and timeline did not allow for definitive claims about whether and how blame avoidance strategies shifted over the long term. Finally, this research design does not explain whether and to what extent blame avoidance efforts were successful (but see, Jarman et al, 2022). We can, however, point to evidence that in some Canadian provinces, the public attributed key pandemic-related decisions to the Chief Medical Officer of Health (Fluker, 2020; Fikowski, 2022). In Australia, politicians’ use of this strategy fuelled public conversation and scrutiny regarding the role of unelected officials in decision-making (Windholz, 2021; Molloy, 2021; Evans and Gratton AO, 2021). This suggests that, in some cases, blame avoidance by political leaders did lead the public – correctly or incorrectly – to believe that public health officials were responsible for key decisions. The long-term implications of this remain to be seen.

Conclusion

In a recent lecture, Christopher Hood argued that ‘much of the post-COVID blame games has yet to begin’, and expressed concerns that early efforts to write a history of the pandemic often assert that responsibility lies with the public health experts who got it wrong (Hood, 2022: 476). In this article, we have examined what it means when politicians claim to be ‘following the science’ in the context of governments’ early COVID-19 pandemic response efforts across three countries. We show that claims to be ‘following the science’ are a form of blame avoidance. Using blame theory (Hood, 2011), we identified a series of approaches that leaders used in the early months of the pandemic. Although leaders in all three countries initially used agency and policy-based approaches, those who found themselves on the receiving end of blame later incorporated presentational strategies to justify questionable or unpopular decisions. It is debatable whether such efforts were effective in the short term or whether they undermined broader government efforts to respond to the pandemic. In the medium- to long-term, ‘just following the science’ rhetoric risks destabilising the roles of CMOs and other science advisors to the government. To govern is to choose. When leaders’ claims to ‘follow the science’ confuse the public as to who chooses and should be held accountable for those choices, this slogan risks undermining trust in science, scientific advisors and, at its most extreme, representative government.

Notes

1

Although the first COVID-19 cases were documented in December 2019, we began sampling the month that the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic.

2

In French: ‘guider’, ‘fonder’, ‘écouter’, ‘conseils de la sante publique’, ‘données probantes’.

Funding

This work was supported by the Government of Canada’s New Frontiers in Research Fund (grant number: NFRFR-2019-00003). The funding body was not involved in the study design, data collection, analysis or interpretation or the decision to submit the article for publication.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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Margaret MacAulay University of Ottawa and York University, Canada

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Adèle Cassola University of Ottawa and York University, Canada

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