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Government decisions ‘informed, not led by science’, says Vallance

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

CSA tells select committee that Sage provides evidence-based advice, but ministers decide policies

The government’s chief scientific adviser has challenged ministers’ repeated claims that they are being “led by science” in responding to Covid-19 crisis.

“Decisions are informed by science, they’re not led by science,” Patrick Vallance told parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee on 5 April.

“The advice that we’ve given has been heard and has been taken by the government,” he said of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. “Clearly, what we don’t give advice on is absolute precise policy decisions or absolute timings on things—so that those are decisions which ministers must take on the basis of the science.”

He described Sage’s output as a small range of evidence-based options and “in the form of what could be done and what the potential consequence might be—not ‘here is the answer get on and do this’; that’s not how it works.”

Vallance’s comments come as Sage published a second batch of papers that have informed its discussions, around six weeks after publishing the first tranche, and as debate over the perceived secrecy of the group shows no sign of abating.

“Those are the inputs to Sage, and it’s important that other scientists can see the inputs to Sage,” Vallance told the MPs. “I want the team to get into a regular rhythm of publishing those papers.”

Vallance said he could not commit to how regularly Sage would publish the papers, but he said the time window should be shorter than a month.

And he disagreed with suggestions that Sage should be rapidly publishing its outputs as well as inputs, saying “it’s not my business to be releasing the information to the public before ministers have seen it”.

But Vallance described himself as a “strong advocate of transparency and openness” and said the group’s advice to ministers should be published at some point.

“I don’t think it should be at the end of the whole thing, that’s clearly too far away. I think it’s up to politicians to decide when they think they’re happy to have the advice that has gone to them released into the public domain.”

He highlighted that before Sage was set up, scientific advice was often not published at all.

“We’re in a better position than in the past,” he said. “But I completely accept that with an ongoing situation like this it’s very important that science advice is known, and the science advice should be open to scrutiny.”