LONDON — The U.K. government has been at pains to stress it is “following the science” in its response to coronavirus — but not all scientists agree.
Since early March, Boris Johnson and his ministers have repeated the mantra that every decision they take is informed by the best available scientific advice. Governments elsewhere, too, have also cited their own experts, though at key points in the pandemic Britain’s response has broken with the international consensus.
Now U.K.-based scientists outside official government circles have flagged this discrepancy and what they see as politicians’ failure to provide adequate explanations. This week they set up an alternative advisory group of experts.
“[The U.K.] didn’t follow World Health Organization advice and there are real questions to be asked about why not,” David King, the new group’s chair and former government chief scientific adviser to past prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, said in an interview.
“WHO has top epidemiologists and virologists advising them, including people from Britain. And in the past British scientists worked very closely with the WHO, for example in the SARS outbreak, and at that point we were very much in the lead in explaining the best way out of that epidemic.”
The government insists it has been transparent about decision-making throughout the pandemic.
King, a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Cambridge with expertise in climate change, pointed to comments from mid-March to “herd immunity” as a potential way out of the crisis. While other countries were banning mass gatherings and imposing lockdowns, Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance told a press conference on March 12 that it was “not desirable” to stop people getting coronavirus “because you want to get some immunity in the population.” He later apologized for not being clear, saying he didn’t mean the government’s plan was to let the virus run through the population unchecked.
King also highlighted U.K. advice, also from mid-March, that people with coronavirus symptoms should stay at home for seven days, instead of the 14 days recommended by the WHO.
He is pressing for more transparency around the discussions of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the official body guiding ministers through the latest science on the coronavirus, which is chaired by Vallance.
As the U.K. official death toll on Wednesday became the worst in Europe, the government is under increasing pressure from those such as King and from the media to defend such differences in policy.
However, public approval of the government has risen during the crisis, according to a new survey from Edelman, up from 36 percent in January to 60 percent today — a bigger leap than in any other country since the coronavirus outbreak began.
Some Tories accuse King and his group of alternative advisors of political motives, highlighting the left-leaning links of many in the group.
Stephen Metcalfe, a Conservative MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock and former chair of the House of Commons science committee, said SAGE members, which include the likes of the Royal Society President Venki Ramakrishnan, are not the type that would be “easily pressurized” and the idea that they are not providing independent advice to the government is “ridiculous.”
“I do not believe there is a need for an alternative, so-called independent group to be giving alternative advice. I think it is confusing for the public and potentially dangerous for alternative groups to set themselves up as an alternative authority on these things,” Metcalfe said.
Regardless of the motivations of King’s group, their very public intervention demonstrates the lack of scientific consensus on this emerging crisis and undercuts Johnson’s key message that “the science” is leading the way.
One of King’s criticisms — that there is not sufficient transparency regarding the scientific advise given to the government — appears to have been heard in Westminster.
Vallance defended SAGE at a hearing of the Commons health and social care committee on Tuesday, saying the group has never published minutes before an “event” they are advising on has finished. Acknowledging that in the case of coronavirus the end date is not clear, he said he wanted SAGE to get into a “regular rhythm” of publishing papers, once a month or every couple of weeks if possible. But he cautioned “it is up to the politicians to decide when they think they’re happy to have the advice that has gone to them then released into the public domain.”
“We’re in a better position than in the past but I completely accept that with an ongoing situation like this it’s very important that the science advice is known, and the science advice should be opened to scrutiny, and the timing of that shouldn’t be at the end of the whole thing, that is clearly too far away,” Vallance said.
This week, SAGE released papers with some of its advice to government and a partial list of its members, following accusations of secrecy, political interference and lack of breadth in expertise. But minutes from its coronavirus meetings have not yet been published.
Without them, King argues it is impossible to know whether SAGE agreed with the WHO or whether the final decision was influenced by political decision-making and concern about shutting down the economy. Welcoming this week’s release of papers, King said scientific advice feeding into government has previously been “all opaque” and less transparent than in previous national crises.
The government insists it has been transparent about decision-making throughout the pandemic, with Vallance and other SAGE members answering questions daily at televised press conferences, and that SAGE has been working at a very fast pace to assimilate all the emerging scientific evidence on the virus and its impacts.
Science vs. science
King, meanwhile, on Monday convened a 12-strong group of experts alternative to SAGE, which met by video call. The meeting was chaired by former Brexit secretary and Tory MP David Davis, and streamlined online.
Their aim, King insists, is not to criticize SAGE’s scientists or to appease some private longing for a seat at the main table but to demand transparency. He reiterated his concern, first reported by the Guardian, that by attending SAGE meetings, Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings might have “swayed” the outcome of the scientific advice, he said. The government and professor Neil Ferguson, who does sit on SAGE, have said it is normal for government advisers to attend such meetings and Cummings did not influence scientists’ advice. Ferguson resigned Tuesday evening after breaching the quarantine rules.
King wants his group to produce recommendations on how to take the U.K. out of the lockdown safely while keeping the country’s death toll as low as possible, how to resume international travel, and primary care preparedness, among other topics. Its recommendations will be part of a report that King will submit to the Commons health committee.
The group includes experts who have been vocal since the start of the pandemic, such as Anthony Costello, former director of the World Health Organization and global health professor at University College London; Gabriel Scally, president of the epidemiology and public health section of the Royal Society of Medicine; Helen Ward, public health professor at Imperial College London; and Elias Mossialos, head of the health policy department at the London School of Economics and adviser to the Greek government.
Asked whether he feared the existence of an unofficial advisory group could confuse the public, King said his work could raise the quality of the scientific advice feeding into government. “I can see that it may create a personal conflict in the public but the idea is to help both them and the government in the decision-making,” he said.
The government said there is only one official group advising ministers, but it is open to external views. “SAGE is providing advice to government and it is comprised of pre-eminent experts from across the worlds of academia, with diverse expertise covering everything from vaccinology and epidemiology, to behavioral science and serology,” a spokesperson said.
“The cast list for each meeting rotates depending on the subject being discussed to ensure the right people are present, for the right discussions. This is a new virus and the science is emerging, so SAGE is happy to receive scientific input from any group, as it already does.”
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to request a complimentary trial.