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The third degree

Back page gossip from the 29 April issue of Research Fortnight

The SPI who came in from the cold

On 24 April The Guardian published the details of the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage), revealing that the prime minister’s special adviser Dominic Cummings had attended meetings. 

Sage is informed by three other expert advisory groups: the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) and the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).

While membership of NERVTAG is in the public domain, it is rare to find anyone willing to acknowledge they sit on SPI-M and SPI-B. There may be good reasons for this, given the trolls lurking on the internet waiting to dispense their own scientific advice.

But Susan Michie, professor of health psychology and director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London, is commendably open about her membership of SPI-B. She even wrote an op-ed for the British Medical Journal on 28 February entitled, “Behavioural science must be at the heart of the public health response to Covid-19”.

Michie has long roots in the British establishment. She is the granddaughter of Henry McLaren, 2nd Baron Aberconway—an old Etonian, industrialist and Liberal MP. Her mother Dame Anne McLaren was a world-leading biologist who left £52 million in her will.

Michie has also been, since 1978, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. She was previously married to fellow traveller Andrew Murray, who left the Communist Party to become a fixer for Jeremy Corbyn. According to Electoral Commission records Michie donated £14,000 to Labour during Corbyn’s leadership. She reportedly told a party meeting that British communists were working at “full tilt” to get Mr Corbyn elected.

What Michie does in her spare time perhaps has little bearing on her expertise in public health. You might wonder what insights into human behaviour her political activity has afforded her over the last four decades, but you cannot complain that SPI-B lacks a diversity of views.

Ministerial code

Earlier this month, during an online The Student Room Q&A with Michelle Donelan, a student asked the universities minister what support with rent they might expect given the government had “told students to return to their permanent addresses”. Donelan responded, “I can assure you that we never instructed students to return to their permanent addresses”. 

The Office for Students published a briefing note on 22 April stating, “In the period before ‘lockdown’, which started on 23 March 2020, the government advised students to return to their out-of-term homes if possible.” 

Toby mug

On 19 April former Office for Students board member Toby Young asked Twitter to “guess how many people aged 45 and under have died of COVID-19 in the UK to date”. Former universities minister Chris Skidmore replied, “This isn’t a time for pub quiz questions. And the correct answer is too many”. Too true.