One of the country’s most senior scientists has criticised government for the “shroud of secrecy” drawn over major decisions in the coronavirus crisis and urged ministers to be more open about the reasons behind their policies.

Sir Paul Nurse, the nobel laureate and director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, said important decisions throughout the pandemic had been made in what appeared to be a “black box” of scientists, civil servants and politicians, and called for more transparency and scrutiny.

The failure to be more open about pivotal decisions, and the basis on which they were reached, meant it had been impossible to challenge emerging policy, he said, a situation that fuelled poor decisions and put public trust at risk.

Nurse’s comments came as other senior researchers raised further concerns about the way expert advice is handled in the UK and how the lack of transparency has allowed ministers to claim their policies are driven by scientific evidence.

Prof Nurse, the former president of the Royal Society and a chief scientific advisor to the European Commission, said: “Decisions are too often shrouded in secrecy. They need challenge and we need processes to ensure that happens. If they are going to keep the trust of the nation, they need to make those discussions more public.”

“It sometimes seems like a ‘black box’ made up of scientists, civil servants and politicians are coming up with the decisions,” Nurse added. “It needs to be more open. We need greater transparency, greater scrutiny and greater challenge to get the best results.”

Nurse’s comments came as:

  • It emerged that Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak met last week to consider how to avert another nationwide lockdown in the event of a second wave of infections.

  • Melbourne, Australia was put under an overnight curfew for the next six weeks

  • The number of confirmed cases in the UK rose to 304,695 with 46,201 deaths; and nearly 18m worldwide.

  • A major incident was declared in Greater Manchester after infection rates rose in multiple areas, allowing agencies to draw on extra resources and establish a central command to coordinate their response.

Government departments have their own chief scientists, but during a crisis the prime minister and his cabinet are advised by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) which has a number of specialist subgroups. Sage is convened by the civil contingencies committee, Cobra, which considers advice from Sage and across government departments. The Sage membership depends on the crisis at hand. During the coronavirus pandemic, it has been roughly half academics and half government employees, including departmental chief scientists and experts from Public Health England, the NHS and the Health and Safety Executive.

Britain’s troubled effort to provide coronavirus testing revealed a number of instances where decisions should have been subjected to more scrutiny, Nurse said. Early on in the outbreak, the government suggested it was doing all the tests needed, yet only a limited number of tests were possible because capacity was so low. “They seemed not to want to admit that they weren’t prepared, that they were unable to do the testing properly, because that would have been an admission of failure from square one,” Nurse said.

Another decision, to build and equip the giant Lighthouse labs from scratch in a bid to scale up testing, resulted in “a total shambles at the height of the pandemic”, Nurse said, because large laboratories take time to set up. “It should have been clear that it would take many months. How was that decision made? It’s completely opaque,” he said.

While Sage has started to publish its minutes and supporting documents some weeks after it meets, Nurse says ministerial decisions, which are often said to be “led by the science”, are not open to the scrutiny.

Beyond the coronavirus crisis, Nurse believes the lack of openness stores up problems for the future. “What worries me is that we have an increasingly technocratic and complex society and we are going to increasingly need complex discussions involving science and the use of science that will impact on policy,” he said.

Prof Chris Higgins, who chaired the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) after the BSE Inquiry, said ministers would do well to re-read the report. The inquiry criticised ministers, chief medical officers and scientific advisors, after a “campaign of reassurance” left the public in the dark about the potential risks from British beef.

“The government has not learned the lessons outlined in the Phillips review of BSE,” Higgins said. “There should, as Phillips recommended, be a clear-cut separation between those analysing data and assessing risk and those making decisions. This distinction has been lost in the Covid crisis.”

Under Higgins, Seac held its meetings in public and made all its data available. No government advisors sat on the committee but they could observe and ask questions along with the members of the public. The committee’s risk assessments and analyses were shared openly and departments used them for policy making.

Sage works differently. It meets in private and members are asked not to talk about Sage discussions. The co-chairs, Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific advisor, and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, are government employees, but do not make policy decisions.

Vallance’s and Whitty’s routine appearances on either side of Boris Johnson or one of his ministers lent scientific and medical credibility to the government’s announcements and the claim they were “following the science”, Higgins said. But by blurring the line between scientific advice and policy making, ministers made it easy for responsibility to be shifted to their advisors, he added. “When things go wrong, the government will say it’s not our fault, we did what the scientists told us,” he said.

“I’ve got great respect for Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty but they are being put in an impossibly conflicted position. They are not independent scientists gathering and analysing data. They are government-employed scientists whose job it is to interpret and interrogate the available data and relative risks for the politicians. It is the politicians who must balance the risks and make final decisions and therefore take responsibility.”

“I believe in transparency wherever possible. It keeps people honest and it allows people to see that science is not exact, that there are a lot of unknowns and that you have to make best guesses, and those best guesses will change,” Higgins said. “What I’d like to see is scientists having their discussions in public, and all the data being made available immediately, so people can see for themselves all the information that’s available for ministers to make decisions.”

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said that if Vallance and Whitty had gone through the Phillips inquiry, they might have avoided some of the controversies that dogged Sage in the Covid-19 crisis.

“While it may have been politically and presentationally convenient, the unprecedented public prominence given to Vallance and Whitty was storing up problems, as and when the lines between scientific evidence, advice and decision-making became more blurry and contested,” Wilsdon said. “I don’t think Vallance should ever have allowed himself and Sage to be used in this way, or for ‘the science’, as embodied by Sage, to be presented in such a singular, monolithic way.”

The Guardian

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