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Sun 18 April 2021

While the Chancellor avoided consulting experts, other ministers used them as scapegoats – as chaos reigned in Downing Street, a damning new report into the pandemic suggests

Another damning report has been released into the Government’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, this time revealing how ministers failed to properly utilise scientific advice.

Of particular note, the Institute for Government (IfG) report states that Chancellor Rishi Sunak did not consult scientific experts before launching his ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme this Summer. The discount scheme, which provided cheaper meals to people visiting restaurants, was called “epidemiologically illiterate” by experts interviewed by the IfG.

In assessing the Government’s use of scientific knowledge during the pandemic, the think tank spoke to senior officials, some of the Government’s chief scientific advisors, and external scientists.

The 58-page report describes how the Government has pursued one of two counter-productive approaches at any one time during the pandemic. Either, as above, ministers did not consult scientists at all, or simply flouted their advice. Or, as described below, they leaned too heavily on scientific judgement and therefore responded too slowly.

The authors suggest that the Government should have considered the views of scientists as an essential input to the decision-making process, but should not have devolved so much responsibility to scientific advisors.

The report says that, in the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government placed too much reliance on its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – a band of experts and academics that acts as a source of wisdom for the Government during health crises.

Whereas some countries took pre-emptive action to repress the pandemic, the UK Government waited until the scientific evidence was “overwhelming” – often meaning that the country was behind the curve.

This strategy was couched in the familiar mantra of “following the science”, which the report describes as “inaccurate – and in fact damaging – because it implied a role that scientific advice could and should not play”.

Downplaying the responsibility of ministers, some scientists felt as though this maxim scapegoated experts for the failures of politicians, the report states.

Perhaps ministers felt as though they needed a scapegoat, after witnessing the disarray that was festering within the upper-reaches of Government. The IfG describes how the decision-making process was “chaotic” and that ministers “failed to clearly communicate their priorities to science advisors”.

One SAGE member described the state of affairs as a “void of decision-making,” epitomised by the Prime Minister’s decision not to attend several key meetings at the outset of the crisis. “Boris Johnson’s absences raised legitimate questions about whether the Prime Minister was sufficiently alert to the scale of the threat,” the report reads.

And while the crisis unfolded with unnerving ferocity, nothing curtailed this vacuum of power in Westminster. “At times it was very unclear, outside the inner circles, just who would be involved, how decisions were taken and on what basis.”

Scientists were for months unclear about the Government’s priorities, the report describes, and so were not able to offer informed advice about the administration’s policies. This seems to explain why the nation has been buffeted by contradictory proclamations during the pandemic, with periods of repressive lockdown following sharp easements of restrictions – often localised and lacking complimentary financial reassurances.

In one case, SAGE was not asked to consider the return of students to universities “until it was almost too late to inform policy”. Consequently, campus-wide infection spikes were seen in September and October, causing many universities to restrict the movement of students and to move their teaching online – much to the consternation of freshers and parents.

These conclusions come after a series of National Audit Office reports, revealing how the Government’s wasteful, biased procurement processes funnelled millions in public contracts to corporate giants and firms with links to the Conservative Party – without delivering the goods.

If these reports are anything to go by, the public inquiry will be withering. It must come sooner rather than later.


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