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expert reaction to Rishi Sunak’s interview in the Spectator about the role of scientists in the pandemic

Several journalists have asked us for responses to Rishi Sunak’s comments, here are some in case useful.


Professor Robin Grimes, Department of Materials, Imperial College and attendee of various SAGE’s from Fukushima to the Pandemic, said:

“SAGE is an advisory group.  Its advice is transmitted to the PM or a member of the Cabinet assigned by the PM.  Policy decisions are never made by SAGE.  The only decisions SAGE makes is what to report and explain to the PM.  That is decision is based entirely on our best understanding of what the scientific evidence is saying and what it is not saying – the relative degrees of uncertainty.  Of course, there is robust debate, there must be.  Furthermore, before attending a SAGE, scientists are made acutely aware of the boundaries – what the job is, science, evidence, analysis, and what it is not, policy making.  Nobody attending SAGE is confused!”


Prof John Edmunds, Professor in the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and member of SAGE in the pandemic, said:

“It is not well understood, but SAGE’s role was quite narrow: to review and assess the scientific evidence to help inform the decision-makers. It did not consider the economic aspects – it was not asked to do so and was not constituted to do so. 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. I am not aware of this happening in a systematic, open, peer-reviewed way. Where, for instance, was the equivalent of SAGE and all its subgroups on the economic side? Was there an army of economists in universities and research institutes across the country working night and day to collect, sift, analyse and project the possible impact of different policies? And if not, why not? As the Chancellor of the Exchequer Mr Sunak could have set up such a system, but did not.”


Prof Graham Medley, Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and chair of SPI-M in the pandemic, 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. The disagreement comes out in the uncertainty. There is a balance between the consensus and the uncertainty – for example, we can either all agree that closing schools will reduce transmission with absolute certainty, or that closing schools will have a relatively small effect with lots of uncertainty.  Science has no place in the decision whether to close schools or not, but it does have a role to say what the impact on the epidemic might be. 

“Hopefully the inquiry will address the question of how the very different spheres of science and politics can be better able to support each other during the next pandemic.”


Prof Ian Boyd, University of St Andrews and member of SAGE in the pandemic, said:

“SAGE was established to provide advice based on scientific evidence and inference about how best to tackle the pandemic. The advice was based on the information available at the time.

“Retrospective analysis of that advice needs to take account of what was known, and not known, at the time the advice was provided. Especially in the early stages of the pandemic an immense amount was not known, and this meant that risks were high, and therefore precaution was called for. SAGE did not make decisions, it tried to reflect its uncertainties in its advice and it worked by consensus. Members were acutely aware of the trade-offs associated with implementing specific actions. To the extent that it was possible with the information available at the time, these trade-offs were included within the uncertainty expressed in the advice.”


Prof John Womersley, College of Science & Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and former Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), said:

“I’m sure Sunak’s comments will play well with a certain section of the Conservative base – and also with some parts of the scientific community who will delight in taking offence.  This is a shame really, as there’s a legitimate debate to be had about whether decision-making in the pandemic was sufficiently interdisciplinary and holistic.”



Declared interests

The nature of this story means everyone quoted above could be perceived to have a stake in it. As such, our policy is not to ask for interests to be declared – instead, they are implicit in each person’s affiliation.

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