UK’s coronavirus science advice won’t be published until pandemic ends

By | April 20, 2020
Patrick Vallance (centre) is the UK's chief scientific adviser

Patrick Vallance (centre) is the UK’s chief scientific adviser

Ian Davidson/Alamy Live News

Key scientific data and advice the UK government is using to guide its covid-19 response won’t be published until the pandemic ends. Documents used to make decisions and the minutes of meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) will only be made public when the current outbreak is brought under control, according to Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser.

In a letter sent earlier this month to MP Greg Clark, who chairs the House of Commons science and technology committee, Vallance said: “Once SAGE stops convening on this emergency the minutes of relevant SAGE meetings, supporting documents and the names of participants (with their permission) will be published.”

SAGE currently meets twice a week and passes advice to government ministers. The committee’s decision-making and membership have come under scrutiny because of the government’s reluctance to announce strict social distancing measures to minimise infection. Critics also want to know why the government initially played down the importance of testing for the virus. Ministers have repeatedly said they are following scientific advice, and that such advice will be central to decide when – and how – to lift social distancing restrictions.

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“It’s disgraceful,” says Allyson Pollock, director of the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University, UK, who was one of dozens of experts who signed a letter in The Lancet medical journal last month arguing that government advisors should be more transparent. “We ought to know who is advising the government,” she says. “What is the government hiding and who is it protecting?” Government employees and publicly funded university scientists – likely to make up a large number of SAGE members – are accountable to the taxpayer, she says.

Government officials have published some details of the scientific research discussed by SAGE, including influential results from disease modellers at Imperial College London that prompted prime minister Boris Johnson to introduce broader social distancing restrictions last month. But other details remain secret, such as initial discussions over the controversial idea of developing “herd immunity” among the UK population, and the role played by behavioural scientists in government advice. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, is among those who argue that public health advice should have been more prominent in SAGE’s decision-making.

“I think they should be sharing who the key people are and minutes of their meetings,” says Devi Sridhar, a public health scientist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who also signed the letter published in The Lancet. “I think transparency is incredibly important and we’ve taken this route in the Scottish Government Covid-19 Advisory Group. We share the names of members and minutes.”

The refusal to publish minutes of the advisory group meetings until the pandemic is over also contradicts the UK government’s own guidance. The 2011 Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees says meeting minutes should be published “as soon as possible” and written in an “unattributable form” – meaning there is no need to identify members. Advisory committees “should operate from a presumption of openness” the code says, and also publish meeting agendas and final advice.

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