SAGE meeting just once a month as Covid rates rise

Source cites "lessened demand for science advice" for reduction in meetings
Photo: Hackney Council/Open Government Licence v3.0

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has reduced the frequency of its meetings to just once a month, despite rising Covid infections, because ministers are asking for less scientific advice, a report has revealed.

The group, whose advice has been used to inform the government’s coronavirus response, has met only three times since July, the i reported. Before that point, it was meeting weekly.

A source told the newspaper SAGE has been meeting less often because of “lessened demand” from ministers for scientific advice.

The report comes despite a rising infection rate, with Covid cases hitting nearly 50,000 in a day early this week, prompting calls for government to implement stronger measures to contain it.

The death rate also hit its highest peak since March, with 223 deaths from the virus reported yesterday.

The advisory group, which is attended by a range of external scientific experts that changes depending on the crisis at hand, is chaired by England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and government scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

Having met weekly since spring 2020, it started meeting fortnightly in June, before dropping to monthly meetings in July. Its last meetings were 22 July,  9 September, and 14 October. 

A Whitehall source told the i the “meeting rhythm” of SAGE and its sub-committees is determined by “government demand for scientific advice on particular issues” and the “emergence of new evidence”.

They said it is meeting at a “reducing tempo given the lessened demand for science advice as our understanding of key science questions improves, the epidemic evolves and capabilities within government increases”.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “This week we have seen infections at around 50,000 a day, warnings of waning vaccination and a faltering jabs programme which when combined with fear over flu should be taken as flashing warning lights for ministers.

“Learning to live with the virus is not the same as pretending the virus doesn’t exist. To hear that Sage has effectively been stood down beggars belief.”

'We do need to act'

This week NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor urged the government to reintroduce stricter measures to curb the spread of the virus, such as requiring people to wear masks in public places, encouraging them to work from home and limiting inside social gatherings. He told Sky News: "The overwhelming evidence is that we do need to act."

"If we can do those things which are inconvenient but allow life to go on then we may not have to do things which will have a bigger impact," he said.

His comments came after Neil Ferguson, a former SAGE member, said government may need to implement a “Plan B” in order to bring infection rates down. He said the plan would involve “rolling back of measures” but would be unlikely to look like the lockdown enforced in January.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng today said a lockdown would not be implemented this winter, telling Sky News: "I would rule that out."

"I think the conversation about restrictions on travel, restrictions on more lockdowns is completely unhelpful," he added.

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