A lack of scientific skills in the Cabinet Office at the height of the Covid pandemic undermined efforts to gather scientific advice to help with policymaking, the former head of the Government Office for Science has said.
Despite politicians’ claims that they were “following the science” in formulating their response to Covid, there were several weeks in spring 2020 when the way in which the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was commissioned was “chaotic and poorly formulated”, Stuart Wainwright told the Covid Inquiry yesterday.
Wainwright was director of GO-Science, a unit led by the government chief scientific adviser that advises the prime minister and cabinet on policymaking, between December 2019 and June 2023. The directorate, which now sits in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, acts as the secretariat for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which convened to support the government’s Covid response in 2020.
During the session, he was quizzed by Dermot Keating KC on how effectively the centre of government sought the advice of SAGE as the pandemic unfolded. Keating leaned heavily on a December 2020 report by the Institute for Government, Science advice in a crisis, which identified two key concerns: “the way the government used this advice and the way it communicated it”.
Wainwright was asked to give his opinion on an extract from the report that said: "Decision making at the centre of government was too often chaotic and ministers failed to clearly communicate their priorities to science advisers. This was most acute in the initial months but a lack of clarity about objectives persisted through the release of the first lockdown to recent decisions over the second lockdown and regional tiers."
Keating asked Wainwright if he had observed “issues regarding the failure to clearly communicate priorities to scientific advisers” while at GO-Science.
“Yes, I'd agree with much of the tenor of this paragraph,” Wainwright said.
He recalled that there were “some good attempts” in the early months of the pandemic to pull together advice from the NHS, experts and departments – “and initially there were people, I would say, who were in Cabinet Office in the first few months who understood how to interact with science fairly well”.
“But it was an extraordinary situation,” he said, adding that he was not sure that “the formulation of national objectives was clear enough”.
After governance shifted following the introduction of ministerial implementation groups in mid-March, Wainwright said “the formulation of science commissioning from the centre got quite chaotic for quite some time”. The four implementation groups focused on issues related to healthcare; the general public sector; the economy and business; and international issues.
“[It] gradually got better through the summer and then got a lot better, I think, when a much stronger analysis unit was created in the C-19 secretariat in the autumn, and again that was rebuilding Cabinet Office's capacity to engage in science evidence and analysis and statistics, and then the questions got better,” he explained.
One of the problems during the “chaotic” period, he said, was insufficient discussion between policy officials, operators of key services and experts to set out clear objectives for scientific advice.
“I'm not sure there was enough people in Cabinet Office with scientific skills at this point who understood how to try to frame the questions,” he said.
He said that for that period, the IfG’s observation that scientific advisers “ability to provide useful answers [was] hampered by poorly formulated questions” was correct.
“The commissioning of advice did get quite chaotic and poorly formulated from March through into the summer and then got better again in the autumn,” he said.
Wainwright was also asked to give his opinion on whether ministers failed to, or were too slow to, ask for advice on key issues such as the return of students to universities – leaving SAGE members to formulate their own research questions.
The IfG's report said ministers were slow to make decisions about lockdown because they were too reliant on “an illusion that ‘following the science’ would provide the answers” and spent too long waiting for SAGE to give definitive answers on when to take action.
“I think it's a bit more nuanced than that,” Wainwright said, adding that decision makers may have been slow to ask for advice – but there was a question about whether SAGE should have been the first place to turn in all instances.
He said SAGE had been forced “to grow into something that it was never meant to be, to fill some of the gaps that were just not there going into the pandemic”.
“We didn't have a lot of standing public health capacity on the scale that we needed it going into the pandemic, so a mixture of academic volunteers and a small number of officials filled that gap… in a better situation, you might want to draw on your public health experts within your public health agency.”
But Public Health England, which was later scrapped and partly replaced by the UK Health Security Agency, had a “lack of capacity and capability” to provide some of the scientific expertise that was needed, Wainwright said.
He said in GO-Science, there was a sense in late February and March 2020 “of other parts of government either not being there or not being allowed to be there, in some cases”.
“Science, technical advice, public health advice was needed and we had to grow our structures to be able to provide that. That wasn't out of design, certainly not by desire, but I think it was out of necessity,” he said.
“My perception in February and March is that gradually the centre began to trust what GO-Science and SAGE were doing, and possibly not other parts, but I don't know the reasons for that,” he added.
'Following the science'
Wainwright was asked for his thoughts on a phrase often repeated by ministers during the early pandemic response – that they were “following the science” – which the IfG said “blurred the line between the scientific advice and policy decisions”.
Asked if he agreed with the IfG’s assessment, he replied: “I do.”
He added: "In this period it felt SAGE was being lent on probably to a greater extent than it should have been, but also as we gradually published our minutes and nothing else was published... it created this impression, I think, that that's all that there was. And I think that did have a negative effect on the protective space in which our scientists could operate."
Asked if he had raised his concerns about the phrase "following the science" with government when he was at GO-Science, Wainwright said he had.
“Yes, I recall doing so,” he said. “Our counterparts in Cabinet Office understood, and gradually, I can't remember how long it took, but gradually that term did stop being used.”