Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is blaming SAGE for the government’s dreadful failures in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. This coincides with the announcement that the new Joint Biosecurity Centre is to take a more prominent role in co-ordinating the response to Covid-19, and SAGE will meet less often.
Hunt blames the SAGE scientists for the “wrong advice” – ignoring the intervention in SAGE meetings of the Prime Minister’s chief political adviser Dominic Cummings and his Vote Leave campaign sidekick, Ben Warner.
But SAGE scientists have spoken out about the impossibility of coming up with independent scientific advice, with Cummings participating in meetings.
During his years running the Department of Health, Hunt ignored recommendations from the 2011 Science and Technology Select Committee about how to protect the independence of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – particularly from government officials.
He must share responsibility for Cummings’ interference in SAGE advice.
Joint Biosecurity Centre takeover – local outbreaks to be contained using Prevent counter-terrorism strategy
Whether by accident or design, Hunt’s denigration of SAGE coincided with a BBC report that the Group’s role was to be downgraded. Instead it will be largely replaced by the new Joint Biosecurity Centre. This shadowy body is run out of the Cabinet Office, where Dominic Cumming’s pal Michael Gove is the responsible Minister.
As well as test and trace data, this is to include information from the public, schools, and a Covid lead in every workplace and organisation. The model is the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy.
The Joint Biosecurity Centre Playbook (e.g. data management planning including data security, data requirements including NHS linkages) is central to Local Authorities’ Local Outbreak Control Plans.
The Joint Biosecurity Centre’s operating method is laid out in a document presented to SAGE on 20.5.2020.
To extend its surveillance capacity over the public, the government has set up this centralised data collection siphon, based on the Prevent counter-terrorism model and fed from a £10bn commercial test and trace system, that doesn’t work. It bypasses trusted local public health departments, GPs and NHS and university labs that would do the job far more effectively, cheaply and without extracting personal data from citizens – particularly those in low income, key worker and BAME communities which are disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
Hunt blames SAGE for failing to propose a test and trace strategy for combating the spread of Covid19
In a Financial Times podcast on 8th July, Hunt complained about months of delay in setting up a test and trace scheme (although he didnt seem bothered that it’s costly, privatised and disastrously inefficient.)
Mr Hunt, who oversaw the health service from 2012 to 2018, told the Financial Times the government should have pursued a test and trace strategy from the start of the Covid19 pandemic.
He’s accused SAGE of giving ministers “the wrong scientific advice”:
“They modelled a herd immunity strategy. They modelled full lockdown. They did not model a Korean style test and trace — which turned out to be the best way of tackling coronavirus — and that wasn’t given to ministers as an option.
“What is clear to me now is that the wrong scientific advice was given to ministers by Sage in the early part of the pandemic.”
Hunt’s allegations are disingenuous
It’s far more likely that SAGE told the government exactly what it knew it wanted to hear – as a result of Dominic Cummings’ disruptive and entirely inappropriate participation at SAGE meetings.
He would basically have been telling SAGE what the government want SAGE to say. That was to let Covid-19 rip through the whole population, limited only to the extent that it wouldn’t cause the NHS to collapse.
It’s true SAGE membership was heavily biased in favour of mathematical modellers and behaviour change psychologists and short on epidemiologists and public health doctors – which is who it really needed.
But given the Government’s shocking run down of the public health service since the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, exactly whose fault was that?
And let’s remember that it was under Hunt’s stint as Secretary of State that the Dept of Health ignored the recommendations of the Cygnus pandemic planning report and created the rubbish privatised NHS Supply Chain that was a major cause of the terrifying lack of PPE.
Is the SAGE appointment process fit for purpose?
The 2011 Science and Technology Select Committee noted problems with the SAGE appointment process.
Para 153 records that the appointment process was cause for concern among scientists and engineers, when it came to the volcanic ash SAGE:
“Professor Bill McGuire, Co-director of the University College London Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction, who identified himself as a member of SAGE, commented that ‘the nature of the invitation process was not clear’.”
Para 154 indicates further problems with the appointment of SAGE members,
“Time is of the essence in an emergency and the pressure to identify and appoint SAGE members quickly could lead to an initial lack of balance…The first step is to ensure that key experts are identified through the NRA process.” (The National Risk Assessment process)
155 recommends that,
“GO (Government Office for) Science, working with Departments, develops and maintains a directory of scientific experts who can be called upon in emergencies. The directory should include information on expertise area, current security clearance and previous experience advising Government. We anticipate that focus should be placed on the risks identified in the NRA, although not exclusively…”
This recommendation dates from February 2011. Was it ever carried out? Did it come into play for selection of the Covid-19 SAGE?
Of clear relevance to the Covid-19 SAGE, 157 recommends,
“International sharing of scientific data and expertise will often be pivotal to the resolution of an emergency. We recommend that the GCSA clarify how he ensures that SAGEs draw on international expertise and what formal role SAGE members may play in this.”
Did the Government’s Chief Scientific Officer do this? And if so, does the Covid-19 SAGE draw on international expertise?
Hunt has himself to blame for the lack of a peer-review process for SAGE advice
Hunt told the Financial Times that Sage required more transparency and scrutiny to ensure politicians received better advice, including a mechanism whereby
“scientists not on Sage in our great universities can all peer-review the advice that Sage is giving to ministers and challenge it”.
The 2011 Science and Technology Committee report made an identical recommendation (para 165):
“It is important that the existence of SAGE and how it can be accessed is made known during an emergency so that those with alternative, credible scientific views can contribute. Such input would need to be screened and evaluated, but that would be part of SAGE’s challenge function.”
As Sec of State for Health, Hunt had years to make sure that his Department – one of the two key players responsible for SAGE membership and operation during any health emergency – acted on that recommendation.
2011 Select Committee recommendations about SAGE independence from government were not carried out
In the light of evidence from Sir Gordon Duff, co-Chair of the swine flu pandemic SAGE, the 2011 Science and Technology Select Committee Report made recommendations about how SAGE should retain independence from the government.
Gordon Duff told the Select Committee that SAGE’s “independent scientific challenge” was retained during the pandemic. He pointed out that this function only applies
“ in the appreciation and interpretation of the scientific evidence. There is a distinction between that and its interpretation or translation into policy.”
“SAGE had a very good and independent role … when it comes to challenging the scientific data and how it is being interpreted.”
But the Select Committee were sceptical about Sir Gordon Duff’s claim that the swine flu SAGE maintained its independence (para 175):
“particularly as it included Government officials…”
Nine years on, that issue has not been sorted.
Covid-19 SAGE independence compromised by Johnson’s political advisers
The compromise to the Covid-19 SAGE independence has come not from properly appointed Government officials, which the Select Committee saw as a bad enough thing already- but from the Prime Minister’s chief political adviser Dominic Cummings and his Brexit Vote Leave campaign buddy Ben Warner. People with even less legitimacy as participants in an independent SAGE
Ben Warner is the brother of Mark Warner whose artificial intelligence company Faculty has cleaned up on 7 government contracts over the past 18 months. Ben Warner was a principal at Faculty when the company worked with Dominic Cummings on the electoral law-breaking Vote Leave campaign.
The Guardian has reported that Faculty has been using large volumes of confidential UK patient information to build predictive computer models around the Covid-19 outbreak.
One NHS document suggests that at the end of March, Faculty considered running a computer simulation to assess the impact of a policy of “targeted herd immunity”.
This is the policy that Hunt has blamed SAGE for, accusing them of giving ministers “the wrong scientific advice.”
Lawyers for Faculty said the proposed herd immunity simulation never took place.
Be that as it may – in blaming SAGE, Hunt is making scientists proxy for the manipulations of Cummings and his Vote Leave campaign corporate profiteers. He must know this.
Downing Street has defended the presence of Johnson’s political advisers on the Covid-19 SAGE
Responding to reports in mid-April that SAGE members were “shocked, concerned and worried for the impartiality of advice”, because the presence of Cummings and Ben Warner had contravened “previous guidelines about how you make sure you get impartial scientific advice going through to politicians, who make the decisions”, a Downing Street spokesperson said,
“It is factually wrong and damaging to sensible public debate to imply [Sage] advice is affected by government advisers listening to discussions. It is entirely right that No 10 advisers attend to better understand the scientific debate and the decisions that need to be taken.”
But No 10 advisors were not listening to discussions. Cummings was listed as an active SAGE participant.
And the Downing Street’s spokesperson’s ignorance of the 2011 Select Committee findings and its recommendation (para176) can only be wilful.
The Select Committee’s recommendation was easy to grasp:
“[I] t must be made clear how SAGE retains… independence from Government. We conclude that clarifying a code of conduct and publishing the names of members of future SAGEs, with their declarations of interest, could only be useful in this respect.
The list of Covid-19 SAGE members who’ve consented to publication of their names shows that the recommendation to publish the names of SAGE members has only been partially followed – and only after loud public calls for publication of the membership.
Where is this code of conduct? Where are the declarations of interest of SAGE members?
Including the declarations of interest of the Prime Minister’s main political advisor and his Brexit Vote Leave data company sidekick?
If SAGE lacks the right kind of scientists to do the job, the government has itself to blame
I asked my MP who decides on SAGE membership. Astonishingly, Craig Whittaker responded in a few minutes. Usually he NEVER replies to my emails. What can be going on?
He directed me to a section of the Science and Technology Committee – Third Report on Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies, 14 February 2011.
“This perhaps best explains. SAGE membership is dealt with on here from item No. 144”
Paras 149 and 150 show that for pandemic outbreaks, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and the Department of Health are responsible for selecting SAGE membership.
Para 149 records Dame Deirdre Hine’s recommendation, following the independent review of the UK response to swine flu pandemic, that
“The Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) and the Department of Health (DH) should ensure that there is an appropriate balance of contribution in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies for future pandemic outbreaks.”
In Para 150, the Science and Technology Committee announced that
“The process by which members for the swine flu SAGE were identified seems clear to us…we emphasise that the GCSA and DH must be vigilant in ensuring an appropriate balance of expertise in future.”
So if the Covid-19 SAGE lacks the right kind of scientists to do the job, that’s largely down to Matt Hancock at the Department of Health and Social Care.