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Sage’s lack of transparency was ‘definitely a mistake’, CSA admits


Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty say advisory group should have published minutes and papers sooner

The government’s chief scientific adviser has admitted that the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies “definitely made a mistake” on transparency in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The group, known as Sage, faced strong criticism over its initial refusal to publish minutes and the advice it had received, as well as information on its membership.

Speaking during a House of Lords Science and Technology Committee hearing on 17 July on the science of Covid-19, Patrick Vallance said: “I think we definitely made a mistake early on by not getting the Sage minutes and papers out quickly.”

Historically, he explained, Sage papers have not come out until after a particular incident has concluded. However, in the case of the current pandemic he said “it was right to get the papers out and make sure people could see evidence on which decisions would be made”.

“So,” he added, “I think that’s an important lesson to be learned and, of course, as always the speculation before the papers were released about what was in them—and also who was on Sage—was far more exciting and fruity than the truth when the papers were out when people could see the nature of the scientific work behind it.”

The government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty agreed that “it was an error” not to be more open.

Asked how to encourage public trust in future incidents, Vallance said: “I think it comes down to openness, clarity of explanation and also…providing a clear link between what the science advice is in terms of its implications for policy and operations.”

Meanwhile, as the blame game for the UK’s poor handling of the pandemic gathers pace ahead of an official inquiry the prime minister has now agreed to, Vallance said that it was “known across government” that key scientific institutions with representatives on Sage, including the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society, shut down their offices a week to 10 days before the prime minister decided to lock down the nation.