Government not ‘following the science’ on coronavirus response, warn health experts

PUBLISHED: 11:35 24 April 2020 | UPDATED: 11:35 24 April 2020

Chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty (left) alongside prime minister Boris Johnson and chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance (right_ during a press conference.  Picture: Simon Dawson/PA Wire

Chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty (left) alongside prime minister Boris Johnson and chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance (right_ during a press conference. Picture: Simon Dawson/PA Wire

Health experts have warned the government is not “following the science” during the coronavirus outbreak.

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Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said the government was shirking its responsibilities every time it based decisions on “following the science” during the coronavirus epidemic.

Sridar argued that senior ministers were too reliant on epidemiologists and modellers and failed to consider advice from other public health experts.

She told the Guardian: “As a scientist, I hope I never again to hear the phrase ‘based on the best science and evidence’ spoken by a politician.

“This phrase has become basically meaningless and used to explain anything and everything.”

The government says that all of its decisions about how to respond to the coronavirus crisis have been based “on a representative range of the most up-to-date science advice”. It says the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has been providing ministers and officials with “free and frank advice throughout, based on external scientific evidence and a wide source of essential information”.

However, Sridhar has said scientific advice is typically broad and diverse and that decisions such as not banning mass gathering until late March, imposing a lockdown sooner or discontinuing a test, track, and trace campaign were just snippets advice ministers would have received during SAGE briefings. She said a focus on one discipline of science may have led to shortsightedness on coronavirus policy.

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Sridhar added: “World Health Organization (WHO) advice, and what we’ve learned from lots of previous outbreaks in low- and middle-income countries, is that the faster you move at the start, the better, because it’s exponential growth.”

“In public health, a test, trace and isolate campaign would’ve been where your mind first went.”

One immunologist at the University of Manchester agreed. Professor Sheena Cruickshankon wrote on Twitter: “The types of science and voices involved used are important to inform policy. I really fear“science-lead” is used as a blanket insurance statement about policy (not just by UK) when it’s not strictly accurate and could ultimately erode faith in science.”

Another health professor from the University of Edinburgh felt modelling was relied on more than expert advice. Professors Mark Woolhouse, an infectious diseases epidemiologist said: “I do think scientific advice is driven far too much by epidemiology – and I’m an epidemiologist.

“I understand that the government is being advised by economists, psychiatrists and others, but we’re not seeing what that science is telling them. I find that very puzzling.

“With any disease there is a trade-off. Public health is largely about that trade-off. What’s happening here is that both sides of the equation are so enormous and so damaging that the routine public health challenge of balancing costs and benefits is thrown into incredibly stark relief. Yet that balance has to be found.”

MORE: Government accused of ‘hiding behind scientists’ in its response to coronavirus.

Health experts have called on the government to release SAGE minutes and the name of attendees in a bid to boost transparency between the government and the public. Chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance has refused to do so until the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

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