Science adviser sounded alarm over Treasury modelling, Covid Inquiry told

Former economic adviser insists Treasury was not "tactical" about its economic analysis but "shared freely"
Screenshot: Covid Inquiry

One of government’s top scientists had serious concerns about infection modelling being used by the Treasury amid a coronavirus surge in early 2021, the Covid Inquiry has heard.

Dame Angela McLean – now government’s chief scientific adviser, who was deputy CSA at the time – sounded the alarm that the Treasury had changed an epidemiological model without her say-so.

In an email to former No.10 special adviser Ben Warner on 25 January 2021, McClean said she had alerted chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty and then-CSA Sir Patrick Vallance that Treasury officials had “changed the model after I QA’d [quality assured] it and I don’t know how”.

“Anything HMT says about infectious disease modelling therefore has no endorsement from me – they are on their own,” she said.

“Given their inability to spot egregious errors in other things they were sent I do not have confidence in their ability to hack a simple, sensible model.”

Forwarding on the message to Philip Duffy, then a director general at the Treasury, Warner said he was “very concerned about HMT analysis around the Covid [sic], and that it will lead to incorrect or misleading advice” to the chancellor.

In his response, Duffy said: “I can categorically assure you that no-one is trying to mislead anyone, which would be unethical.”

Treasury 'was not tactical with analysis'

The email was shared during a hearing in which Clare Lombardelli, the former chief economic adviser to the Treasury, gave evidence to the inquiry. Lombardelli said she had no knowledge of the exchange or the scientific modelling being discussed by McClean.

However, she did acknowledge that the Treasury could “potentially” have been more transparent about the economic modelling and analysis it had contributed to the Covid response.

She denied the Treasury had been “tactical” in how it shared its evidence and analysis, saying time pressures had hindered transparency.

Counsel to the inquiry Joanne Cecil challenged Lombardelli on whether the Treasury had shared information "freely" or only "when it was in advance of a policy proposal that Treasury sought to advance".

She said the department had “shared our economic analysis and evidence very, very freely with everyone to ensure it was feeding into the decisions as it needed to”, including with other government departments "that had economic interests".

But Treasury analysis was typically not shared publicly, leading to criticism. Cecil noted that it had been compared unfavourably to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which regularly published the minutes of the meetings it convened during the pandemic, along with its modelling and analysis.

Asked if transparency around economic modelling and advice would have been “desirable” in hindsight, Lombardelli acknowledged that transparency “helps you get other input and views on what you're doing”.

She said the Treasury did share its modelling and our analysis with “the other parts of the economic framework we use in the UK”. 

However, she said that unlike SAGE, which is convened in emergencies, there is a “very established set-up for how we do economic analysis and policymaking” in the UK. This includes specialist capacity in the Treasury, Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility, she said.

“Could we have done more to make it more systematic? Perhaps, but.. there are differences in the way we have the system and we have got quite a robust macroeconomic framework that we use.”

She said the Treasury “did publish some analysis – more than we normally do”.

And she said when it contributed modelling and analysis that fed into Covid response, “we shared them quite broadly and got input”.

But she added: “Could we have done that more? I mean, potentially. And, you know, maybe that would improve the quality of the modelling… we're sort of not precious about that.

“...Our primary focus at this time – and, being frank, it was a pressurised time – was to ensure that ministers and decision makers had the best information available.”

Asked if there was any risk associated with sharing its modelling and analysis more widely, she said that “thinking about publication schedules and what do you publish and handling the responses to that” would have led to officials having “less time to do the actual analysing of what was going on and less time to talk to ministers about it”.

'No lockdown cost estimate'

During the hearing, Lombardelli was asked to expand on comments she made in a June 2022 speech on Covid and the economy, in which she said "it was not possible to meaningfully model the overall 'economic cost of lockdown'".

This was partly because it was impossible to calculate the cost of not implementing a lockdown, as it was not possible to tell how people would have responded to the virus without the intervention. "There was no reasonable counterfactual," Lombardelli said in her speech.

But yesterday she insisted that this did not mean there was "no meaningful modelling" of the impact of lockdown.

"There was a lot of analysis and modelling that happened. What I would say is there was no estimated cost of a lockdown, if you like. There is no way to basically say a lockdown will cost you X or, indeed,a lockdown of this form will cost you X but of a different form will cost you Y."

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