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MPs grill Vallance on Covid-19 as paper predicts 250,000 deaths

Image: Number 10 [BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Chief scientific adviser defends government action so far and calls for heavy investment in science

MPs have questioned the government’s chief scientific adviser about his advice on Covid-19, some of which has been criticised over the past week as the epidemic in the UK continues to worsen.

Speaking before the Health and Social Care Committee on 17 March, Patrick Vallance defended the government’s actions so far, saying they listened to science advice and prioritised saving lives rather than the economy.

His comments came as the role of science advice in the UK was thrust into the spotlight in an unprecedented fashion, and the number of positive cases of Covid-19 had risen to more than 1,950 in the UK, with the actual number estimated to be much higher.

Last week, the government faced heavy criticism from the academic community over its slow and closed response to the virus, on a range of issues including:

  • A decision not to test all suspected cases and their close contacts
  • Its focus on epidemiological modelling
  • Not sharing the data and models it was using to inform its actions

Vallance said there is now a plan to ramp up testing and improve data flows, which he said are critical to tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

He added that the modelling and the codes would be made public by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and academic groups.

Questioned about how much the government was engaging with scientists who disagreed with its plans, Vallance said: “If you think SAGE and the way SAGE works is a cosy consensus of agreeing scientists you would be very mistaken. It is a lively, robust discussion with multiple inputs. We don’t try to get everybody to say exactly the same thing. The idea is to look at the evidence and come up with the answers as best we can.”

And he underscored the scale of the uncertainty: “I don’t think any of us have seen anything like this. This is a first, not just in a generation, but potentially the first in 100 years. So none of us have seen this.”

He added that the country would have to “invest heavily in science”.

“We are going to have to research hard to find out why some people are getting ill…why people get better quickly in some cases, what the vaccines are, what the tests are, what the treatments are,” he said. “This is a really intensive research effort.”

His comments come as a group of researchers at Imperial College London on 16 March released their modelling paper used to inform the government response. The paper states that the strict containment measures now in place might need to continue for 18 months and that even so there could still be 250,000 deaths.

“The modelling paper by Imperial College London has clearly informed the new measures from the chief medical officer, and therefore it is excellent to have that data available to scrutinise,” said Michael Head, senior research fellow in Global Health, University of Southampton.

Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, welcomed the government’s reliance on experts and their daily briefings on the issue that stared on 16 March. “It is vital there is transparency about what we know and what we don’t, coupled with regular open communications about what the evidence is and how it is being used,” he said.

However, he added that “uncertainty is inevitable in the coming months” and he warned against politicising scientific advice.

“We also welcome the decision by the government to publish the evidence including data, modelling and reasoning, behind their strategy,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society. “While the Coronavirus (Covid-19) response must be led by the evidence, it is important to recognise that this is a new health threat and as new evidence becomes available it will be reflected in the evolution of the government’s response.”

But Jonathan Ball, professor of Molecular Virology, University of Nottingham, said given that “the sharp rise in cases seems to have taken us by surprise…we have to ask if there has been an over-reliance on one scientific discipline”.

“Epidemiological modelling is really useful but is only as good as the scientific knowledge—the understanding of how the virus behaves—that underpins it,” he said. “To get the best advice and strategy there has to be a scientific tension between the various disciplines, because without that tension the structure risks collapse.”