Covid scientists showed ‘too much enthusiasm’ for cameras, WhatsApps reveal
Scientists advising the Government during Covid-19 showed “too much enthusiasm for the camera” when sharing their views with the media, according to WhatsApp messages between Sir Patrick Vallance and Boris Johnson.
The UK Covid-19 Inquiry heard evidence from Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) during the pandemic.
He was shown a series of WhatsApp messages from June 2020, starting with then-prime minister Mr Johnson complaining about scientists offering views that were not aired previously.
Mr Johnson wrote: “These Sage geezers now saying we should have gone into lockdown earlier. Can we gently ask them why they didn’t make their anxieties public at the time?”
Sir Patrick (pictured), who was the Government’s chief scientific adviser at the time, replied: “I think there’s too much enthusiasm for the camera at the moment and will speak to them again.
“All the minutes of Sage are published and so data recommendations are clear.”
Former health secretary Matt Hancock then replied to the messages saying it was “exceptionally unhelpful having individual members of Sage making comments like this, it undermines us all”.
Asked about the messages, Prof Medley said: “I think this is a difficult area in terms of the kind of inside/outside Government and independence (of scientists).
“Clearly the Government values independence and wishes to have independent people giving advice and providing evidence.
“And of course, if we’re independent then we can say what we like.
“In an epidemic, one of the key things that determines outcome is the coherence of the population. And we’re very well aware of that.
“So, being on message, as it were, supporting Government communications, even if you might think that they are personally wrong, puts you in a difficult position.”
He suggested the area was a “minefield”.
Prof Medley also revealed that, although Sage came up with regular consensus statements, there were often different opinions within the group.
He said: “If we didn’t have a consensus statement and a series of ‘five people think this and three people think that’, then potentially you get arguments in public about ‘which is right – the three or the five?’
“So having a consensus statement I think helps because that does give people a clear guideline of what our position was as a group. But we weren’t asked to follow that in public.
“People quite happily go out, and quite within their rights, go out and disagree with their own consensus, which might sound incoherent but we are independent academics and that’s the nature of the beast.
“In some ways, it would have been much easier for me and others if they (Government) had agreed to pay my salary, compted me into civil service, taking me into Government, then that would have made my life a lot easier, but then I wouldn’t have been independent.
“So that independence question and how you use it across the barrier into Government I do think is a critical one for us understanding how Sage works.”
Earlier, Prof Medley said he had grown increasingly frustrated in February and March 2020 at the lack of action by the Government.
He said the “extent of the epidemic became very clear in February” – weeks before the UK went into lockdown.
He said it was “no secret” by the end of February 2020 that the NHS would be overwhelmed by Covid cases.
He insisted civil servants responsible for the minutes would have “completely understood” the views of scientists on Sage, adding an account named “Dominic Cummings iPhone X” also dialled into remote meetings of the SPI-M-O subgroup.
In a statement submitted to the inquiry, Professor Matt Keeling, from the University of Warwick – who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O), said he was of the opinion that the term “following the science” had “led to the impression that the balance of evidence was weighted towards the scientific advice”.
He also described the term used by ministers as “confusing and unhelpful”.
He said: “You can’t just look at a single measure, and we know that politicians aren’t going to do that.
“You can’t just say ‘we want to save lives, reduce hospitalisations, no matter what’. And we wouldn’t expect them to. There needs to be a balance between health, economics, wellbeing, social care.
“And so I think just saying ‘following the science’ made it sound like the science was being weighted more than anything else.
“It was also the case that the science, certainly in terms of Sage minutes and documents that went to Sage, was being put into the public domain, whereas I never saw any other evidence that we assumed was being considered.
“It very much felt as if, certainly in the early stages, any documents that went to Sage were what was driving policy and therefore, if individuals didn’t like policy, it reflected on the scientific advice that was going forward.
“So I think quite often following the science sounded like we almost had too much power.
“And I don’t think that was ever the case. And certainly not in the first year. It was it was very much that we were answering questions that we thought might want to be asked.
“It wasn’t until early 2021 when we started doing the road-map documents that there was a really good dialogue between scientists and policymakers.”
The inquiry continues.
Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2023, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Yui Mok / PA.