UK to name scientists on coronavirus advisory group Sage | World news

The names of scientists advising ministers on the coronavirus epidemic are to be made public this week in an effort to boost transparency around the government’s decision-making process.

The UK government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who chairs the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), made the announcement on Monday, shortly before Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said there had been a “deficiency” in the system providing scientific advice.

Sturgeon said she had been unhappy since the start of the coronavirus crisis that the chief scientist for the Scottish government did not have full participation rights in Sage meetings.

Vallance said membership of Sage and the subcommittees that fed into it would be published shortly, although individual members could ask to remain anonymous. The Guardian understands scientific advisers were emailed over the weekend and given the chance to “opt out” of being named in public.

The makeup of the largely secretive advisory group has come under intense scrutiny amid concerns that ministers have fumbled critical aspects of Britain’s pandemic response while insisting that they are following “the best science”.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that the prime minister’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings, and a data scientist he worked with on the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit, have been participating in Sage meetings. Downing Street has played down their involvement, saying they are largely silent observers.

However, others on Sage have said they were shocked, concerned and worried about the impartiality of advice when they discovered No 10 political advisers would be taking part.

Vallance told journalists on Monday he was strongly advised to keep the Sage membership secret to ensure the independence and personal security of the scientists on the group. The membership of Sage differs for each emergency and has varied from meeting to meeting during the coronavirus outbreak.

Historically, the names of the advisers had been published after a crisis had ended, he said, adding it was unclear when that point would be reached in dealing with the coronavirus. “I believe we should be more prepared to publish names sooner, and intend to do so shortly,” he said. “We will be publishing the names of those that are happy to have their names published.”

The number of named advisers is expected to reach 100 individuals. Twenty or so sit on Sage, with the rest participating in formal sub-groups or ad hoc teams set up to investigate particular issues.

The sub-groups include 45 people on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) and 18 on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (Spi-B). Others come from the Covid-19 clinical information network and the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag).

Vallance said Sage had met 28 times since its first meeting on 22 January, with early meetings flagging the need to increase testing and the potential for the virus to spread through hospitals and care homes.

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

Is there evidence of coronavirus coming back elsewhere?

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

What are experts worried about?

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter Beaumont

Vallance said there was interest in the Sage meetings across Whitehall from early on. Many people were listening in from “various departments”, but they were not part of the general discussion. “That does include people from No 10 and, yes, occasionally they ask questions.”

Political advisers from Downing Street have never attended Sage meetings before, according to a review of all publicly available minutes of meetings over the last decade.

Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser, said he would not have allowed political advisers to attend his advisory meetings.

“Dominic Cummings has the ear of the prime minister, so who is informing the prime minister about scientific advice?” he asked. “Is it Cummings or is it the chief scientific adviser? Suddenly you get a confusion. There must be a single voice taking the view of the scientific community to the prime minister, that is the most important thing.”

Vallance said he had “no way of knowing” whether Cummings was sharing his own interpretations of Sage discussions with Johnson. “All I’m worried about is that the prime minister hears Sage advice from me. I can’t tell who else he is hearing scientific advice from.”

At a briefing in Edinburgh, Sturgeon said the exclusion of scientists from the devolved administrations from Sage had prompted her to set up her own panel of advisers. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments do not have full membership of Sage.

Sturgeon said she felt some time ago this policy meant she was unable to directly question or test the scientific and technical advice being presented, undermining her ability to find the right policies for Scotland.

That situation improved, she said, when she appointed Prof Andrew Morris, a Sage member and a medical data scientist at the University of Edinburgh, to lead a Scottish science advisory group that reports directly to her. Morris is also the part-time chief scientific adviser to the Scottish government’s health department.

“We now have a situation where the chair of the advisory group here in Scotland does participate fully in Sage, and that has helped to, I think, deal with a deficiency that I certainly felt was there at the outset,” Sturgeon said during her daily coronavirus briefing.

She said the new advisory group allowed her to “augment” the high quality and “very helpful” advice from Sage. Sturgeon said she had to have the “ability as first minister, as the chief decision-maker in the Scottish government, to interrogate directly some of that advice and to have somebody that I could ask questions of, so that my understanding of it is as it needs to be, and that wasn’t, I felt, the case earlier on with Sage.”

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