Government 'not open enough' about science advice for Covid-19 measures, MPs say

Transparency around how SAGE works has improved, but lessons have been applied "inconsistently"
Hearing from government scientists has been "reassuring", the committee said. Photo: Hannah McKay/PA Wire/PA Images

The government has not been transparent enough about the science informing its coronavirus response, a group of MPs has said.

The Science and Technology Committee said the government has made good use of scientific analysis and expertise during the pandemic, through structures such as the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, SAGE, and that hearing from senior government scientists had been “important and reassuring” for the public.

However, it said the use of scientific advice had at times been too secretive, which did not enable rigorous scrutiny and risked damaging public confidence in decision making.

The initial arrangements around SAGE were “not open enough”, the committee said in a report today. 

It said transparency of the group’s work had improved since, with the publication of its membership, minutes and papers. However, the same standards of transparency have not been applied to new bodies like the Joint Biosecurity Centre, the committee said.

“While it is regrettable that there were initial delays in the publication of SAGE evidence, minutes and the disclosure of expert advisers, we are pleased that a regular drumbeat of public information was eventually established,” the report said.

“Nevertheless, we have concerns that the lessons from this experience have not been consistently applied.”

It said there was “insufficient visibility as to what advice was given to the government and over the transparency of the operation and advice” of the JBC, which is responsible for setting the Covid alert level – one of the factors government is using to decide which restrictions to put in place.

The report also raised questions about the thinking behind targets that have been set during the pandemic – for example, the number of Covid tests to be carried out.

“The role of scientific advice in shaping the choice of operational targets has not always been clear,” it said. “Targets for testing were set by ministers and it seemed that scientific advice assumed a level of capacity as given rather than indicating what was needed.”

The MPs also called for greater levels of transparency around how the government evaluates other factors that influence its policies. They said when informing the public about other factors influencing decisions on Covid measures, like the impact on people’s livelihoods and education, the government should take the same approach to transparency as it has taken towards science advice in the latter months of the pandemic.

Committee chair Greg Clark said: “There is nothing to fear from openness. The more transparent data, analysis and conclusions drawn are, the better it is for policy making and for public confidence.”

He noted that greater transparency about the evidence behind decision making would be “especially important when ministers eventually weigh choices of when it is appropriate to begin to lift the current restrictions”.

The report also called on the government to take more steps to learn from how other countries have handled the coronavirus crisis.

“Although the government was advised by many experts of distinction, and generally followed the advice that was given, the outcome during the first wave of the pandemic is not regarded as having been one of the best in the world,” the report said.

It said the government should have instructed public-health authorities to carry out a “more explicit evaluation” of other countries’ responses to coronavirus, singling out the “test, trace and isolate measures” in certain Asian countries as an example.

This should be a “clearer part of the consideration” of any future measures the government takes to tackle Covid-19, the MPs urged.

Clark said that despite the committee's criticisms, its inquiry had concluded the government had been  "serious in its intention to obtain and act on rigorous scientific advice, and that scientists – led by the chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer – have given outstanding service in providing analysis and explaining it to the public".

A government spokesperson said: "This is an unprecedented global pandemic and the best available scientific evidence and data has informed our response throughout.

"We are committed to working in a way that promotes public confidence and have always sought to be as clear and transparent as possible including on how all data is used to make lockdown decisions.

"We publish a wide range of data and evidence on from a range of advisory bodies, including regular analysis by the Joint Biosecurity Centre on the spread of the virus locally and all SAGE evidence once no longer under consideration."

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