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Sage adviser criticises No 10’s Covid-19 communications

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

Susan Michie also highlighted a lack of transparency in government’s science advisory process

A researcher advising the UK government on its response to the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted a “disconnect” between the advice of behavioural scientists and the government’s communications with the public.

Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London, who is also a participant in the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on behaviours, was speaking during a House of Lords Science and Technology Committee hearing on 9 June exploring the role of behavioural science in the pandemic.

She told peers that the group, which feeds into the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, had published “two or three papers on the principles of good communication”.

However, she said that “several behavioural scientists have noticed a disconnect between those principles of good communication and what we see both at the verbal presentations at the press conferences and also the communication around the change to the ‘stay alert’ and ‘stay at home’ messaging”.

She added that there was also a lack of transparency about the “flow of scientific advice through to policymakers”. Sage has resisted publishing its outputs, the scientific advice to policymakers, despite repeated calls for more transparency and eventually publishing some of its minutes and inputs—papers that inform its discussions.

Michie highlighted the importance of consistency in the government’s messaging to the general public, “so the same messages are given by different people and at different times”.

“Another thing that is really important is the rationale [behind policy decisions],” she said. “People should not just be told what to do but why to do it.”

This, she claimed, was “done very well at the beginning” of the outbreak but that “obviously some of us are more in it than others”.

Michie went on to say there had been a “dent in trust of the government to manage the pandemic over the last month, but especially over the last couple of weeks”, in an apparent dig at Boris Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings, who was accused of breaking lockdown when he drove 260 miles with his family to Durham in March, without facing any consequences.

Building up that trust again would be “central” to managing a second wave of coronavirus in the UK, she added.

In the second part of the hearing, Andrew Hayward, director of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, spoke of the need to increase the capacity for testing in the UK.

“We need to be able to ramp up testing capacity to way higher than it currently is if we are to pursue a strategy of test and trace,” he said.

Otherwise, in the event of a second wave, “we will need… to revert to the strategy of lockdown because test and trace will not be sufficient”.

He also warned of the limits of the government’s contact-tracing app, which he described as “an adjunct to what we are doing but by no means a panacea”.

“There are also issues about how you might get confusion when you’ve got two parallel systems working,” he added. “So you might have your app telling you one thing and somebody phoning you up and telling you something else – [it] is potentially confusing.”

Sheila Bird, former programme leader at the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge, added that it was important to acquire data from those who are tested, including their household size, where they work and their occupation.

“There is a huge amount to be learned from the analysis of the information that should be associated with test and trace,” she told peers.