Scientific Advice in the Coronavirus Crisis

The coronavirus crisis is fundamentally scientific. Frontline care services are being provided by highly-trained and scientifically literate staff, whilst behind the scenes teams at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London are working tirelessly to develop a vaccine. The government has insisted throughout that it is being ‘guided by the science’. This is a welcome sentiment, but exactly what this sentiment means in practice is entirely less clear. 

We know that the government is in regular contact with the Chief Medical Officer for England (Prof Chris Whitty), and the Chief Scientific Officer (Sir Patrick Vallance). Furthermore, they are being advised by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). The latter group appears to consist of a few dozen individuals, though at the moment their advice remains secret and their membership confidential. There is no doubt that these are all some of the finest scientific minds in the country – but as any scientist knows, we are all fallible, and transparency is a way to mitigate against the risks of being wrong.

The secrecy we see at present is fundamentally at odds with the way that science operates. When we publish results, great care must be taken to ensure that the data and models that we use are understandable and reproducible, that our conclusions are justified by our observations and that our work is reviewed by our peers. Some of the details of the government’s mathematical models (such as those being developed by Prof Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London) are known, but the government’s interpretation of these models remains unclear. 

Furthermore, without knowing the composition of SAGE’s membership, it is difficult to be certain that all relevant fields are being properly represented. When the advice itself is not public, a fundamental part of the scientific process – peer review – cannot be undertaken. The concerns associated with this problem are wide-reaching. It is impossible to be sure that the advice given is representative of the opinions of the expert scientific community in any particular field and we cannot tell whether it fully conveys the inherent uncertainties in our scientific knowledge. This factor is particularly important when the science is, as here, fast-moving and subject to rapid re-evaluation. 

Furthermore, when policies emerge which are clearly misguided (such as the shortcomings in the initial government epidemiological calculations, or the purchase of £16M of unreliable antibody tests) or confusing (e.g. the divergence between UK and WHO advice on isolation periods), understanding the origin of these issues is impossible. It might be that the UK government has access to evidence that suggests that their policy is optimal; but it is also possible that they have been given incorrect advice, or as is perhaps more likely, they have misinterpreted or ignored reasonable advice. 

Whether or not the government’s scientific advice is secret may seem a small and inconsequential matter. However, the implications of this small fact for the general public should not be underestimated. Ideally, the scientific input to the government, the analysis and interpretation of this input by the Civil Service or Cabinet Advisors, and the resulting public health measures would all be open to scrutiny (as is the case in Scotland). With the first and second parts of this chain secret, the only target for opposition questioning is the third part – the public health measures. Understandably and rightly, Labour’s leadership team are very cautious about doing anything that could be seen to undermine public trust in the coronavirus advice, and hence are unable to effectively hold the government to account. 

Multiple academics have written in The Lancet calling for this advice to be made public, and the Commons’ Science and Technology Select Committee have asked much the same. The accepted government procedures for committees such as SAGE also call for the public release of minutes in a timely fashion – which is not happening. Labour must urgently push for the leadership team to see this advice on an urgent basis, and for it to be made public on a prompt, rolling basis. To this end, Scientists for Labour have written to Sir Keir Starmer calling for the Labour Party to urgently adopt this position as policy.  

During this crisis, Labour officials and representatives, and those working in fields directly related to coronavirus, are eligible to receive Scientists for Labour’s daily research summaries and focus reports. Please email if you wish to subscribe. 

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