Sunak faces backlash from Sage scientists after criticism of lockdown decision-making
Rishi Sunak faced a backlash from scientists after claiming independent experts were given too much power during the pandemic, with concerns about the economic and social impacts of lockdowns not properly considered.
The former chancellor, one of the key players within Government during the crisis, said “if you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed” and claimed that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) edited its minutes to hide dissenting opinions.
But Sage members rejected Mr Sunak’s characterisation of the situation, while former Number 10 insiders described Mr Sunak’s comments as “simply wrong” and “dangerous rubbish”.
Mr Sunak used a Spectator interview to criticise the way decisions were made, saying “we shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did”.
The Tory leadership hopeful claimed he had often been a lone voice of resistance to lockdown measures within the Government.
“We didn’t talk at all about missed (doctors) appointments, or the backlog building in the NHS in a massive way. That was never part of it,” he said.
The meetings were “literally me around that table, just fighting”, which “was incredibly uncomfortable every single time”.
At one meeting he raised the impact on children’s education: “I was very emotional about it. I was like ‘Forget about the economy. Surely we can all agree that kids not being in school is a major nightmare’, or something like that.
“There was a big silence afterwards. It was the first time someone had said it. I was so furious.”
He said that if the trade-offs had been acknowledged from the beginning, different decisions could have been taken.
Mr Sunak suggested that minutes of Sage meetings, setting out the discussions on guidance for ministers, had omitted dissenting views.
He claimed the panel members did not realise there was a Treasury representative on their calls, feeding back to him.
He said she would tell him: “‘Well, actually, it turns out that lots of people disagreed with that conclusion’, or ‘here are the reasons that they were not sure about it’. So at least I would be able to go into these meetings better armed.”
But Prof Graham Medley, a member of Sage, said: “Government have the power, so if one member of Cabinet thinks that scientific advice was too ‘empowered’ then it is a criticism of their colleagues rather than the scientists.
“The Sage meetings were about the science, not the policy options, and the minutes reflect the scientific consensus at the time.”
Another Sage member, Prof John Edmunds, said the panel had a narrow role in reviewing and assessing the scientific evidence, rather than considering the economic aspects.
“There may be some truth to the argument that the scientific evidence often outweighed the economic data; however, the answer is not to get less scientific evidence (or ignore some scientific evidence), but to build up a clearer picture of the economic and wider impact of different policies, using the best evidence available at the time,” he said.
He added that there could have been an economic equivalent to Sage and as chancellor Mr Sunak “could have set up such a system, but did not”.
Another scientist who contributed advice to the Government during the pandemic said Mr Sunak’s comments “are very misleading as they suggest that he was alone in thinking about the wider impact of lockdown on schools and other social impacts”.
The source said the SPI-B group, which investigated behavioural impacts, and other advisers spent a lot of time examining the issues around school closures.
“If the former chancellor was arguing against school closures he would have found plenty of evidence to support his case from the very group of scientists he now appears to be criticising,” the source said.
Boris Johnson’s former communications chief, Lee Cain, dismissed Mr Sunak’s assessment of the situation, saying he is “simply wrong”.
Mr Cain said: “It would have been morally irresponsible of the Government not to implement lockdown in spring 2020 – the failure to do so would have killed tens of thousands of people who survived Covid.”
He said No 10, the Treasury and Department of Health and Social Care “met multiple times daily and discussed the trade-offs”.
Mr Cain added: “We all knew lockdown was a blunt instrument that had many downsides but in a world without vaccinations it was the best option available.”
Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former senior adviser, said Mr Sunak’s comments were “dangerous rubbish” and pinned the blame unfairly on the former prime minister and others.
A No 10 spokesman said: “At every point, ministers made collective decisions which considered a wide range of expert advice available at the time in order to protect public health.”
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