Don’t blame scientists, Mr Sunak, when governments rarely act on our advice

Blame-shifting is the oldest political trick in the book.

Recent comments from Rishi Sunak and others about the role of scientists in the management of the pandemic – blaming us for encouraging lockdowns and thereby exacerbating the disaster – are an example of rewriting history. They also overlook the important role that the political classes and their acolytes have had in the crisis. I want to put the record straight.

When Sars-CoV2 appeared on the radar of governments in late 2019 and early 2020, it was an unknown virus. Its predecessor and relative, Sars-CoV, had spread globally in 2003 and probably killed about 9% of those infected. There is a significant stock of similar viruses waiting to cross into humans from animal hosts and many are potentially much more deadly than Sars-CoV-2.

Scientists and governments alike were aware of this possibility. In the UK, we rehearsed scenarios involving pandemic viral disease. Much of this was not in the public consciousness because the prevailing belief among politicians was that, wrongly in my view, informing the public could have been too frightening. The result was that we were ill-prepared. Hence the decision to go into lockdown – a move that was based on the best available evidence and saved thousands of lives.

The risks of pandemic disease were known and senior politicians were aware of those risks, alongside other potential national threats, such as loss of food supply. But the costs of creating resilience are rarely, if ever, built into the budgeting process. Areas such as terrorism and defence always take precedence because they have greater political traction. Successive governments have failed to make the case that we need to take these other risks seriously and pay a cost to have them mitigated.

Every scientist I know wants to stop bad things happening and many toil to come up with remedies to reduce risks. But there will always be occasions when major problems arise. Depending on their rapidity and severity, we can suddenly descend into dealing with an emergency. This is what happened in the early weeks of 2020 as Sars-CoV-2 spread around the world.

The UK has a well-oiled system for responding to emergencies that has been exercised on many occasions and found to work well. A cabinet committee – known as Cobra after the place where it meets in the cabinet office – can meet within 30 minutes of an emergency being declared. This is supported by an advisory structure that varies depending on the nature of the emergency. The Science Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is part of this structure.

Sage is not a standing committee. It is formed from each emergency to ensure its expertise is tailored to the specific issue. It is usually chaired by the government chief scientific adviser. Once the emergency is over, Sage stands down and a version of the minutes (excluding any sensitive information) is published. By this time, nobody is usually interested in the dry advice provided by the scientists.

With Covid-19, Sage moved into different territory. The duration of the emergency was unprecedented, as was its complexity. This meant that Sage had more scientists than normal to cover all the relevant expertise. It also meant that public interest was focused on it in ways that had never happened before.

Sage met on more than 100 occasions, sometimes twice a week, and the subgroups met between those meetings to do the grunt work of running epidemiological models, collating and analysing data and reviewing and synthesising literature. None of the scientists was paid to be on Sage and most had other jobs to do. Even if the core group was normally between 30 and 40 scientists, there were hundreds of others working behind the scenes to build a picture of how the pandemic was progressing and trying to project how it might move forward.

Sage was not there to make decisions. It was there to present the best picture it could to politicians who were making extraordinarily difficult choices. This picture started as a very fuzzy image but with time and careful effort it became quite well defined. Within a few months, its models were allowing Sage to provide advice with much higher certainty than at the beginning.

When you are trying to clarify a blurred picture of a disease and its consequences into pithy advice for stressed politicians to absorb, some important points can get lost in translation, but it is important both for those delivering and receiving the advice to understand each other’s dilemmas.

So when Sunak decides to shift the blame for what happened during the course of the pandemic on to the shoulders of scientists, I suggest he needs to look more closely at the process and morals of those involved in Sage. For example, many were schooling their kids at home and were suffering alongside everybody else. They still got on with the job.

It is nonsense to suggest that Sage was insensitive to the issue of the long-term effects of lockdowns – a whole subgroup dedicated itself to trying to understand what this might look like. Sage was discussing the topic of excess deaths in detail in April 2020.

Those who attended Sage meetings were acutely aware of the trade-offs associated with implementing specific actions, such as closing schools. To the extent that it was possible with the information available at the time, these deals were included within the uncertainty expressed in the advice provided to politicians. It is simply unacceptable to rewrite history, by blaming scientists, to save a political class that has systematically failed to respond to the messages that scientists have been providing to them for many, many years.

Sir Ian Boyd is a Scottish zoologist, environmental and polar scientist, former chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and is a professor of biology at the University of St Andrews

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