Government is listening to scientists on coronavirus response, Vallance says

Ramping up testing now a priority for ‘data-driven’ strategy, chief scientist tells MPs

Photo: Photoshot for CSW

The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, has assured MPs that the government is listening to the advice of experts on how to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, amid a barrage of criticism about the way it is handling the outbreak.

Vallance, along with chief medical officer Chris Whitty, is one of the top civil servants providing scientific expertise to inform the government’s approach to Covid-19 outbreak.

They are leading the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – a group that comprises experts from a range of scientific disciplines, which is convened in times of national crisis. Based on the advice of SAGE and other groups, the government has ramped up its measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, advising people limit social contact. However, many believe it must implement even stricter measures that have been adopted in other schools, such as closing schools.


“I think the advice that we’ve given from SAGE, which is based on modelling, virology, clinical, behavioural science... that goes to the government has been really carefully listened to and has not been in any way, from our perspective, overlain with economic considerations as a reason to change the advice,” Vallance told parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee yesterday.

“We’re interested in saving lives and protecting the most vulnerable, and that’s been the driving force that will continue in all of our outputs,” he added.

He said that school closures were “absolutely on the table, as all measures are”, but that they were not considered to be “as effective as other measures” in reducing the effects of the outbreak. He added that closing schools would have “quite complex consequences”, which could include making it harder for key workers such as NHS staff to work and increasing contact between children and their grandparents, who are likely to be vulnerable to the more severe effects of the virus.

He said the measures already in place could be expected to have a “very significant effect on the peak” of the virus.

And Vallance said the government was “absolutely” listening to scientists who disagreed with the approach it was taking to tackling the virus.

“If you think SAGE and the way SAGE works is a cosy consensus of agreeing scientists, you would be very mistaken,” he said.

“It is a lively, robust discussion with multiple inputs and we don’t try to get everybody saying exactly the same thing. The idea is to look at the evidence, come up with the answers as best we can.”

He added that the composition of SAGE changes according to the topic being discussed, as government scientists call on experts from a range of specialist fields to contribute.

The chief scientist also confirmed that some of the measures the government is putting in place to stop the outbreak spreading would need to be in place for “months”.

“The modelling so far suggests that it’s certainly not a couple of weeks... the assumption that you might just just close things for a couple of weeks and start up again is not correct. It’s going to be months, I don’t know how many months,” he said.

He said the government’s approach was, and would continue to be, data driven. At the moment, only people from the most vulnerable groups who are suspected of having the virus, because the health service has limited capacity to carry out tests – but Vallance said increasing testing was now a “priority”.

“As the capacity ramps up – and there’s a very big effort to ramp that up – that will be extended to other groups and ideally you’d get that very wide… We simply don’t have capacity for mass testing of the virus now,” he said.

He said the government would need to respond quickly to new developments – which could include further actions like closing schools, or reimplementing restrictions once they have been lifted if the number of cases climbs again.

“It’s going to be really, really important to get data to monitor the effects… there is a whole range of things we might need to be doing, they’re all on the table, we might need to do more, and we might need to back off. We will need to back off at some point and we need to monitor the impact of backing off,” he said.

“We haven’t got immunity to this virus and therefore as we back off it may come back again.

“This is a daily changing, unique situation where we’re learning as we go along. We’re going to invest heavily in science.”

Vallance also said clear communication about the government’s strategy for dealing with the crisis is “critically important”. The government has come under fire for the ways it has explained the measures in place, which appear to have included anonymous briefings to selected media outlets of some measures before they have been announced formally.

“It’s very obvious that this is complicated, it’s frightening, people don’t know what to do sometimes and therefore the clarity and the ability to keep repeating the same thing in a way that people can understand I think is very important,” the chief scientific adviser said.

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