Cultural differences pitched civil servants against academics, Angela McLean tells Covid Inquiry

Chief scientific adviser had to “paper over the cracks” after direct criticism from scientists ruffled officials’ feathers
Prof Dame Angela McLean gives evidence to the Covid Inquiry

By Jim Dunton

27 Nov 2023

Government chief scientific adviser Prof Dame Angela McLean has told the Covid Inquiry how cultural differences between civil servants and academics routinely needed to be smoothed over at the height of the pandemic response.

McLean, who was chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence from 2019 until April this year, said significantly different approaches to communicating at meetings left officials feeling offended.

She said her experience was that the perceived offenders were “mostly” experts from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies' SPI-M-O sub-group – short for the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational.

Giving evidence to the inquiry on Thursday, McLean said the directness that is typical of academics was epitomised by a “tell me why I’m wrong” mantra in SPI-M-O, but was completely at odds with a civil service tendency to want to agree with everyone.

“The nicest thing that an academic can do for a colleague is point out why they're wrong before it goes out into the world and somebody unfriendly points out why they're wrong,” McLean said.

“Whereas it is very frequent in a civil service meeting that as somebody stands up the very first thing they will say is ‘I agree with everything that's been said’, and you're sat there thinking, ‘Well, you can't have been listening then’.”

McLean said she interpreted the civil service approach as a call for common ground to be recognised for joint endeavours, but that it was alien to scientists.

“It's always quite difficult for an academic who becomes a civil servant to understand why people are saying this sort of weirdly emollient thing, when actually our values are so similar: we are trying to get at the truth,” she said.  

McLean was asked if the difference in approaches had caused problems during the pandemic.

She said: “Yes, there were several occasions when I had to paper over the cracks, I would say. I think it was mostly that an academic on SPI-M-O had told a civil servant why they were wrong in some way that the civil servant felt was rude.

“And so, yeah, there were occasions when I was in contact with people to say, ‘I'm sorry that was upsetting for you, that was – they didn't mean to be rude to you personally, what they – you know, hey – what they were talking about was your work’.”

Frustration at HM Treasury

Elsewhere in the session McLean talked about her frustration that officials at HM Treasury had changed a “toy model” that she and fellow academics designed for policymakers to build their understanding of how infectious disease systems work.

The inquiry heard that the Treasury’s decision had prompted email exchanges in which McLean had felt the need to disassociate herself and SPI-M-O from the revised tool.

One said of the Treasury: “Given their inability to spot egregious errors in other things they were sent I do not have any confidence in their ability to hack a simple, sensible model." It went on to distance the original toy model from anything the department had to say about infectious modelling.

McLean said that, while the Treasury had been encouraged to use the model however it wanted, it had also been urged not to change it because its academic quality-assurance would be lost.

“That is a source of some regret to me,” McLean said. “If Treasury had come to us and said, ‘Oh, this is quite interesting, it doesn't quite do what we need, would you – if we make some changes to it, properly document and explain to you what we've changed, would you re-quality assure it for us?’ I think I would have sighed because it was a lot of work, but I would have done it.”

McLean said such an approach would have formed the basis for interesing results and “a strong interaction”.

No sign of  ‘Dr Death’

WhatsApp messages from McLean published last month by the Covid Inquiry revealed she had referred to then-chancellor Rishi Sunak as “Dr Death” in September 2020 in a seeming reference to his support for the Eat Out to Help Out scheme to boost restaurant footfall.

McLean wasn’t questioned about her description of Sunak at Thursday’s session, but she was asked what her advice would have been on Eat Out to Help Out if the chancellor and then-PM Boris Johnson had sought it.

“It would have been along the lines of advice that we were giving routinely,” she said. “Which is that there wasn't much room for increasing mixing and the kind of mixing that should be avoided is between households indoors.

"We would have said: 'Could you not find some other way to stimulate the economy?'"

The inquiry continues.

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