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The Covid Inquiry Demonstrates How Scientific Independence Matters

Dr Kit Yates examines the lessons emerging from the Covid Inquiry and why fear of pressure from politicians led to the creation of Independent SAGE

Covid scientist with data
Photo credit: Wavebreakmedia/Alamy Stock Photo

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The reporting of some of the evidence from the UK’s Covid Inquiry has felt a little bit like a circus. Chief political correspondents have been drafted in to cover the drama, as civil servants and special advisers (SPADs) at the heart of the Johnson government have been summoned to give evidence. Understandably, the reporting has tended to focus on the sensational: the misogyny, the insults, the infighting between different factions and the general incompetence of those in charge.

But it’s easily forgotten that one of the main focuses of the Inquiry is to learn lessons for the future to prevent the calamitous mistakes that were made during the acute phase of the pandemic from happening again. In amongst the diet of snipes and sensationalism are buried important nuggets of information from which lessons for our future scientific response can be derived.

Some of the revelations, shedding light on the relationships between scientists and policymakers, went almost unreported this week. Buried in an excerpt from Patrick Vallance’s diaries he describes himself and Chris Whitty being “strong-armed” by senior civil servants into appearing at a press conference at which the Prime Minister would be defending Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle.

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This illustrates a very real problem for the scientific advisory system in our country. How can the independence of scientific advisors be maintained under these circumstances? Scientists must be independent of the politicians they are advising. More than that, they must be seen to be independent and that means being able to speak freely about important issues relevant to the crisis.

Professor Yvonne Doyle’s Inquiry testimony presents a stark example of the sort of censorship experienced by scientists during the acute phase of the pandemic. In January of 2020, the then-medical director for Public Health England undertook an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. In the piece, she candidly admitted there could well already be covid cases in the UK and that it would take months if not years to develop a vaccine.

Following the interview, she was advised “not to do any further media, and that the secretary of state [for Health and Social Care – Matt Hancock] would need to clear all media”, which, given little choice, she agreed to. Professor Doyle found herself effectively frozen out, told to stay away from Hancock, so annoyed was he with her intervention. One of the UK’s most senior scientific officers was unable to give effective direct input into the UK’s response at an extremely vital stage of the pandemic, and all because she spoke freely and truthfully to inform the public of the emerging Covid situation.

One of the most senior civil servants at the Department for Health and Social Care, Sir Christopher Wormald, expressed his concerns that Downing Street SPADs were attending Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) meetings in April 2020. He feared that the political presence was compromising the “purity” of the scientific advice being given to the government at the time.

Giving an example of the sort of changes induced by the attendance of SPADs, he recalled “As far as I could see, SAGE had changed its analysis, particularly around, I think it was, the effects on the NHS without there being an explanation of new data.”

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The disgraced ex-PM also claimed “COVID is just nature’s way of dealing with old people” the official inquiry heard.

This concern over the potential political interference with SAGE was one of the reasons (alongside the lack of transparency in SAGE membership and advice) why Independent SAGE was set up by Sir David King (former government Chief Scientific Adviser) in May of 2020. The idea was to create a group of scientific experts who could give advice to the government – and crucially directly to the public – without the worry of political interference.

The public communication aspect of Independent SAGE has always been a central part of the group’s mission. If the general public are being asked to undergo restrictions on their lives and livelihoods based on scientific advice, then surely it is incumbent on scientists to explain to the public the rationale behind those decisions. It’s also of vital importance that scientists feel able to speak out when they become aware that political leaders are taking decisions or actions which are unsupported by scientific evidence.

What many members of the public will be disappointed to learn from the entries in Sir Patrick Vallance’s diaries is that his privately held views are so different from his publicly stated positions. In his diaries, he describes Dominic Cumming’s trip as “Clearly against the rules”, but never said so publicly. In June 2020, Vallance privately accused ministers of “cherry picking” the advice they liked from SAGE but was complicit in the government’s frequently false claims to be “following the science”. In another entry, he suggests his meetings with ministers have made it abundantly clear that “no one in No 10 or the Cabinet Office really read or is taking time to understand the science advice…”.

These are crucial views that, if expressed publicly, would have given the public insights into exactly how the people in power – whom the public expected to protect them – were in fact cooking up rules and policies unsupported by scientific evidence.

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One needs only look at the catastrophic impact of Eat Out to Help Out, a scheme which it later emerged SAGE was not consulted about. One SAGE member – John Edmunds – expressed his criticisms of the scheme in the strongest terms: “If we had (been consulted), I would have been clear what I thought about it. As far as I am concerned, it was a spectacularly stupid idea and an obscene way to spend public money.” But these critiques were aired long after it was useful for the general public to hear them.

One of the main aims of the Inquiry is to learn lessons from the pandemic in order to aid the UK’s response to future such crises. One lesson which surely cannot be ignored, given the evidence that has been aired this week, is the vital importance of the separation of scientific advisors from the politicians they advise. This means no political appointments influencing scientific meetings. It means rendering politicians unable to censor scientists in their attempts to communicate science with the public. And it means scientific advisors being able to speak freely, publicly, and contemporaneously about the scientific advice they are giving.

In particular, those advising the government must feel free to speak out when their advice is being ignored or contradicted by government policy. Without these guarantees on the independence of our scientific advisors, the UK’s response will undoubtedly be beset by the same problems again the next time a crisis hits.

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