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expert reaction to BBC news report that the Joint Biosecurity Centre is to take a more prominent role in co-ordinating the response to Covid-19, and SAGE will meet less often

It has been reported that the new Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) will soon take on a more prominent role in co-ordinating the response to Covid-19, and the government Scientific Addvisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) will meet less often.


Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, Chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, University of Cambridge, said:

“I don’t know the details of how the JBC will be working, but I do know that its head, Dr Clare Gardiner, is a statistician who understands the challenges of using data to monitor outbreaks.  As Clare Marshall, she was the lead author on a much-cited 2005 paper “Statistical issues in the prospective monitoring of health outcomes across multiple units”, which seems extremely relevant to the current situation.  She also has a PhD (supervisor, DJ Spiegelhalter) on Bayesian methods for identifying outliers.  It’s good to have someone with these skills in charge of the JBC.”


Prof Robert Dingwall, Professor of Sociology, Nottingham Trent University, said:

“I think that experience has shown that the present structures are not ideal, although I am not sure that the JBC is the right way to go.  It would not be surprising if the government is looking for reforms as part of its wider review of the extent to which the machinery of the state is fit for purpose.

“SAGE has normally been a group convened for specific emergencies with a fluid membership, reflecting the nature of the event.  The danger of such a system is that too narrow a range of expertise may become involved, with a limited degree of intellectual challenge and critical scrutiny.  In the case of the present pandemic, for example, there has clearly been a slippage from the societal approach envisaged in the 2007 plan to a narrower biomedical/public health approach.  This reflects the success and prestige of biomedical science in the UK, which, as Richard Jones and James Wilsdon have shown, has tended to distort science and innovation policy in general.  The UK is world-leading in these areas – but they do not represent the only expertise relevant to the problem of a pandemic.

“There is relatively little in the public domain about the staffing and working of the JBC.  I would certainly agree that more information would be desirable as it is put together and that there should be a commitment to transparency in its advice and reports.

“Personally, I would prefer to see a more interdisciplinary body created as the top tier, linking the chief scientists of major government departments with a range of high-level outside expertise in the sciences and social sciences, and supported by a permanent director and secretariat.  This would lead horizon-scanning and report directly to the Cabinet Office.  Specific emergencies would be dealt with by ad hoc groups reporting to this body, which would bring a more effective challenge to specialist focus and a whole society/science/government context to its recommendations.”


Prof Susan Michie, Director of UCL Centre for Behaviour Change, UCL, said:

“Suppressing Covid-19 and achieving zero Covid-19 as soon as possible will require maximum adherence from the public to restrictions designed to reduce transmission.  Public acceptance of, engagement with and adherence to advice crucially depends on trust in those giving the advice.

“Recent YouGov polling found decreasing confidence in government’s handling of COVID-19 from 72% (27 March) to 44% (26 June) and increasing confidence in health authorities from 67% (13 March) to 85% (17 June).  Doctors and scientists are generally highly trusted sources of information and advice.  Direct, honest and open communication and high degrees of transparency are associated with high levels of trust.

“In these circumstances, regular and transparent scientific communication about Covid-19 infection, hospitalisation and death rates; emerging knowledge about the virus and its transmission routes; and what organisations and people should be doing to suppress transmission is essential to achieving zero Covid19.

“The Scientific Advisory Group in Emergencies, including its sub-groups, have done an excellent job of providing regular up to date scientific advice to Government on a wide range of issues relevant to decisions that need to be taken.  There was a concern about the secrecy of its participants and reports, hence the launch of Independent SAGE.  Over the last period nearly all participants were revealed and reports are being published although with delays.  There are a core group of scientists serving on SAGE employed by Universities and hence independent of Government.

“With deaths in England over 100 a day and no clear strategy as to how to reduce this to zero Covid, it would be very strange and worrying to reduce the role, cohesiveness and frequency of SAGE and to transfer responsibilities to a new body, the Joint Biosecurity Centre, that is shrouded in secrecy, with no information about its members, how they were selected, and methods for governance, oversight and accountability.  Transparency of science and the relationship between science and policy is going to be key to public trust, which the Government needs to rebuild urgently.”


Prof Derek Hill, Professor of Medical Imaging, UCL, and an expert in medicine and medical device regulation, said:

“It is important that the JBC learns lessons from the COVID-19 response to date.  One issue that was underestimated is the importance of medical equipment, like PPE, ventilators, and testing kits in managing a pandemic.  It is essential that JBC has access to expertise on these sorts of technologies: the way they are developed and regulated, and their performance.  SAGE seemed to have limited expertise in these areas.”


All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:


Declared interests

Prof Susan Michie: “Professor of Health Psychology, University College London: participant in SAGE and its behavioural advisory group and member of Independent SAGE and its behavioural advisory group.”

None others received.

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