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‘The Lack of Transparency about COVID Science Will have Cost Lives During the Pandemic’

The public – and scientists – were not able to scrutinise the Government’s interpretation of the scientific evidence with which it was being supplied, argues Independent SAGE member Kit Yates

Chris Whitty, Boris Johnson and Sir Patrick Vallance at a Coronavirus press conference in March 2020. Photo: PA/Alamy

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The Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor during the pandemic, Sir Patrick Vallance, gave evidence at the COVID Inquiry last week. The headline-grabbing story was probably his testimony that SAGE was not consulted about the now infamous ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme. Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, corroborated his testimony in his own appearance later in the week, revealing that “there was no consultation. Neither Patrick nor I can recall it and I think we would have done”.

Other insights were offered by Sir Patrick’s testimony, perhaps most tellingly through his diary entries. These include suggestions that Downing Street wanted science “altered”; that then Chancellor Rishi Sunak suggested “it is all about handling the scientists, not handling the virus”; and that then Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the Coronavirus graphs as a “mirage” suggesting, in direct contradiction of evidence to the contrary, that “the curves just follow natural patterns despite what you do”.

In under-reported parts of his testimony, Sir Patrick was asked about members of SPI-B (the behavioural committee of SAGE – the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) joining the Independent SAGE group. He replied: “I’m second to none in my belief in academic freedom, but if you join a government committee it’s slightly odd to the be on a committee that’s set up to challenge the government committee.”

His testimony demonstrates a misunderstanding of the reasons for the formation and the purpose of Independent SAGE, of which I am a member.

The alternative scientific advisory group was not set up to challenge SAGE advice but to communicate science transparently and directly. Indeed, the advice shared by Independent SAGE in its weekly public briefings and regular reports was largely in line with SAGE. We drew frequently on the advice and evidence of the excellent scientists working for SAGE, and the group has always put transparency in communication – which many felt was not being offered by the official government committee.

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Transparency is a vital part of the scientific process. This is especially true for scientific advice, which has such significant ramifications.

If you are asking people to undergo restrictions on their liberties and livelihoods based on scientific advice, scientists owe it to the public to explain the science and the modelling behind those decisions. It doesn’t have to be the scientists who are doing the work who share it with the public – understandably many scientists working on the UK’s pandemic response already felt overwhelmed – but someone capable should be keeping the public up-to-date.

Too often during the pandemic, science was either poorly communicated or left entirely uncommunicated – which left a vacuum for potentially bad actors to step in and manipulate the situation to their own ends.

In his testimony, Sir Patrick Vallance went on to describe “a chilling effect, where people didn’t want to bring things to either SAGE or sub-committees as a result of either this [members of SPI-B joining Independent SAGE] or indeed the transparency of publishing all of our minutes”.

Understandably, some of the documents discussed at SAGE meetings may have been sensitive or confidential, but the logical consequence of that sensitivity is not that all SAGE minutes should be secret. This is especially true given that the type of minutes that SAGE was publishing were more akin to a high-level consensus statement than a detailed transcription of everything that was said, and all the documents reviewed during meetings. Many would have liked to have seen more detailed minutes that captured the nuances of the debates that were had.

Increased transparency also leads to increased accountability.

Being able to scrutinise the minutes of scientific committees such as SAGE means that outsiders can verify the assertions and check the results for themselves. Reproducibility and replicability through transparency lies at the heart of science and it should be no different in the case of emergencies.

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Indeed, early on in the pandemic, there were scientific mistakes in the SAGE minutes – for example the doubling time of the pandemic was overestimated. The scientific advice which stemmed from this mistake potentially led to UK decision-makers assuming Britain was further behind Italy’s – which in March 2020, was the worst affected country outside of China –  pandemic trajectory. This misunderstanding may have induced the UK to pursue a mitigation strategy – as opposed to a suppression strategy – for too long, at the cost of many lives.

SAGE minutes were not made public until May 2020 (at almost the same time that Independent SAGE held its first briefing).

But if these minutes had been available for public scrutiny sooner, it’s likely that interested non-SAGE scientists would have been able to highlight the mistake.

The motto of the Royal Society is “nullius in verba” – take no one’s word for it. What we were asked to do all too often in the acute phase of the pandemic is exactly that: to accept the Government’s interpretation of the scientific evidence with which it was being supplied, without the ability to subject it to scrutiny.

That was not a model for good science – and one that should have been replaced in favour of greater transparency and openness.

Kit Yates is a a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and co-director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath. He is a member of Independent SAGE


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