Scientific Wisdom or Secretive Nonsense?

As Bunter Johnson’s government comes under mounting criticism for its response to the coronavirus – a response that has left Britain vying with Italy and Spain as the worst-hit countries in Europe – our political lords and masters have defended themselves by saying they are ‘guided by the science.’

The trouble with that is that nobody knows what the science is.

The government’s influential Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – known by its misleading acronym, SAGE – operates as a secretive black box. Its list of members is secret; its meetings are closed; its recommendations are private; and the minutes of its deliberations are published much later, if at all.

Yet officials invoke SAGE’s name endlessly without ever explaining how it comes up with its advice – or even who these scientists are. We know now that Dominic Cummings and another of Bunter’s secretive and unelected ‘advisers’ have attended meetings but we don’t know why. These two turnips have no scientific background, so what on earth were they doing there?

That lack of transparency about SAGE has become a point of contention as officials struggle to explain why they waited until late March to shift from a somewhat lackadaisical approach to coronabug to the stricter measures adopted by other European countries. Critics say the delay may have worsened a death toll now well past twenty thousand and rising and they fault the government for leaving people in the dark about why it first chose this riskier path.

With all the secrecy, even some of Britain’s top scientists say they don’t know whether they can trust the government’s approach.

“What is the science being followed by the government on coronavirus?” said David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the government. “I don’t know because I don’t know what the advice is and there isn’t the freedom for the scientists to tell the public anyway.”

King, who counselled the Blair creature on the foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, said there was no justification for the government to withhold either the advisory group’s membership or the minutes of its meetings. He is right of course. Doing so, erodes public trust in the establisment, especially given the bewildering twist and turns in its response.

It also raises questions about an academic group that ought to be a point of pride for Britain: the country’s best scientific minds in fields from epidemiology to behavioural science, assembled from cutting-edge laboratories at Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Wow! Shouldn’t we be told who these pratwinkles are so that we can boast about their collective expertise?

“The names are likely to come out at some stage,” said David Lidington, who served as a deputy to Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May. He warned that the government’s lack of disclosure would only cause more headaches later. “There is the risk that if names leak out after a time it becomes a great shock-horror,” he said, adding that it would be better to make a virtue of transparency.

When he was in government, Lidington did not impress me much with his personality but he certainly has a point. Why should we, the public not be told exactly whose advice is having such a huge impact on all our lives? Not only do we need to know who they are but we should also be told why they occupy such eminent roles. Are they really so wise or well informed?

Why for example, did SAGE recommend less stringent social distancing measures on March 9th when France and Ireland were banning large events and ordering lockdowns and there was ample evidence from Italy of the epidemic’s rapid and lethal spread?

Why in late February did a subgroup of SAGE experts underestimate the percentage of people who would have to be hospitalized as a result of contracting the virus, and why did their models underestimate the speed at which the ruddy bug would spread?

Why did those scientists agree to classify the risk level of the contagion to the public as ‘moderate,’ even after weeks of evidence that it was being transmitted between humans in China?

Why, after Imperial College London published a frightening study on March 16th that projected up to half a million deaths if Britain did not act more aggressively to curb the virus, did Johnson wait another full week to close non-essential shops and order people to stay in their homes?

“Political decisions are often framed as following the best scientific advice,” said Connor Rochford, a physician and former consultant at McKinsey & Co. “but science is nothing more than a normative claim about how we ought to make a decision. These are best-guess estimates.”

Well I am not sure what ‘normative’ means but he surely has a point.

Some say that the frequent references of Bunter J and his aides to the scientists should be a warning sign. If as it will surely be, the government’s handling of the crisis is scrutinized in a future parliamentary inquiry, officials are likely to justify their actions by saying they were listening to the experts.

“It has become a shield for them,” said Devi Sridhar, director of the global health governance program at Edinburgh University. “If things go off, you can always say, ‘Well, it was the experts who told us.’”

In other words, it is the political mantra that seems to sustain so many modern governments – ‘do what you like, then pass the buck to somebody else.’

The government has deflected pressure to identify the group’s members or how many there are by noting that Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, who chairs the group, regularly appears at evening news conferences. The government also posts brief reports from some of SAGE’s subgroups, and the data that go into its models on the internet.

In a recent letter to Parliament, Vallance said anonymity protected the security of scientists and also shielded them ‘from lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence, which may hinder their ability to give impartial advice.’ He added that people were free to disclose their membership.

What trite nonsense that is. We the general public are the people most affected by the decisions and opinions of these scientists. Surely we deserve to know who they are?

One member who has made himself known is Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist who is director of Wellcome Trust. He acknowledged the limitations of the system when he recently told the BBC that the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, which advises SAGE, underestimated the threat of the contagion in March.

“The U.K.,” Farrar added, “is likely to be one of the worst, if not the worst affected countries in Europe.”

A member who has become a household name, and a source of scrutiny for his eye-watering statements is Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London. His team of modelers produced the March 16th report that prompted Downing Street to impose the current lockdown.

Ferguson, who collaborates with the World Health Organization and has advised other countries on how to deal with epidemics, later came down himself with symptoms of the virus. In late March, testifying before Parliament from self-isolation in his house, he generated more headlines when he said that Britain could keep its death toll under twenty thousand if it stuck with strict social distancing. This man was wrong with his predictions on SARS, MIRS, Bird Flu and a number of other perceived pandemics yet he is still pontificating and being listened to as though he was the original oracle.

Ferguson did not reply to media requests to discuss his advice to the government or the deliberations of SAGE, but in an interview with The New York Times, he laid out the choices Britain faces. We either had to manage the spread of the virus in a way that minimized deaths but allowed a significant percentage of the population to become infected or tamp down transmission of the virus by imposing a lockdown of the kind the Chinese government did in Wuhan. In the end, he said, there was no choice but to take the latter course. Was he right? I don’t know but it seems to me that he was hedging his bets. ‘Either/or’ statements are hardly likely to ramp up public confidence.

“The U.K. has struggled in the past few weeks in thinking about how to handle this outbreak long term,” Ferguson went on. “We don’t have a clear exit strategy, but we’re going to have to suppress this virus, frankly indefinitely, until we have a vaccine. It’s a difficult position for the world to be in.”

Until mid-March, Ferguson, Vallance and other scientists had appeared receptive to the case for ‘herd immunity.’ Then, confronted with new numbers that projected hospitals would be overwhelmed with patients and that the death toll would skyrocket, they pivoted to a suppression strategy. What is unclear is the role SAGE played in shifting the government’s thinking.

One of the few public documents that gives a glimpse into its deliberations was a report on March 9th that assessed the potential effect of social distancing measures and said the group recommended ‘a combination of individual home isolation of symptomatic cases, household isolation and social distancing of the over 70s.’

That is far short of the lockdown measures Britain ultimately adopted. It did not, for example, include a ban on large gatherings like concerts and sporting events, in part because behavioural scientists doubted there would be enough compliance with the bans to reduce the spread of the virus.

Nor did it include a recommendation for widespread testing and contact tracing of people who had contracted the virus – a policy this government pursued with some success during the earliest days of the outbreak in Britain.

Among the many mysteries of SAGE is the makeup of the group. Vallance said it includes representatives from more than twenty institutions, with expertise ranging from molecular evolution to microbiology. There are four expert groups, with anywhere from five to forty five members, whose advice is funnelled into SAGE. Some scientists, like Ferguson, serve on multiple panels.

But outside experts questioned whether it has enough representation from fields like public health and logistics. Britain’s lack of masks, gloves and other protective gear has become another weak link in its response. Others have said the scientists suffered from a lack of independence. While Vallance has begun to show some daylight with the government – he recently said SAGE would re-examine the government’s decision not to advise people to wear masks – his regular public appearances next to Bunter, Raab and co have made him look too much like a government apologist rather than an independent adviser.

Some of SAGE’s internal debates play out in competing research studies published by their authors. A few days after Imperial College released its dire projections about the deadliness of the virus, a team at Oxford University published a study that considered a scenario in which more than half the population might already have been infected – a theory that, if valid, would argue for a less draconian response.

Scientists of course, often disagree and change their minds based on new data. That is surely yet another argument for lifting the secrecy veil on this advisory group.

“The idea that a small group of experts can never make a mistake or miss out on any information is never right,” said Sarah Wollaston, a former chairwoman of the House of Commons Health Select Committee. “But you can’t challenge the advice if other experts can’t see what they are looking at.”

I felt that Ms Wollaston’s actions as the MP for Totnes over Brexit were pretty despicable but she surely has a point here. If these scientists are so wise that their advice is affecting all our lives – and not necessarily for the better – surely we should know who they are and what their conclusions might be?

After all, it is our future that they are playing skittles with.

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