Scientists insist they did not make Government policy during Covid pandemic
The Covid inquiry is currently hearing evidence related to the Government’s decisions in the early days of the pandemic.
Scientists advising the Government during the Covid pandemic have insisted they did not make policy, despite ministers at the time saying they were “following the science”.
The UK Covid-19 Inquiry heard submissions from the Government Office for Science (Go-Science), whose Government chief scientific adviser (GCSA) during the pandemic was Sir Patrick Vallance.
Sir Patrick has submitted almost 250 pages to the inquiry setting out a full chronological account of the science advice he provided, when it was provided and to whom.
The inquiry heard on Wednesday how Go-Science provides secretarial support for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which it also convenes during emergencies.
The document said: “It is vitally important to a proper understanding of the role of Sage and the GCSA that the distinction between the giving of advice and the taking of decisions is properly understood.
“The As in GCSA and Sage stand for adviser and advisory respectively and it is the clearly defined role of both to provide advice on relevant scientific matters and not to make policy.
“Nothing – including we would suggest the mantra of following the science – should be permitted to blur that fundamental distinction.”
The document said any policy decisions that were taken in light of scientific advice during the pandemic were taken by ministers and officials.
It added: “The fact that science advice given to the Government during the pandemic was delivered in a more transparent manner than other forms of advice may have led it to be accorded a disproportionate prominence in relation to for example, economic, political or operational advice which was delivered far less transparently.
“This may contribute to an inaccurate impression that science advice was directing policymaking when it was, in reality, only one of the relevant considerations taken into account by decision-makers.”
On Tuesday, the inquiry heard extracts from Sir Patrick’s pandemic diary in which he wrote: “Number 10 chaos as usual.
“On Friday, the two-metre rule meeting made it abundantly clear that no one in Number 10 or the Cabinet Office had really read or taken time to understand the science advice on two metres. Quite extraordinary.”
Sir Patrick also wrote in his diary about the Sage committee, the chief medical officer and himself “being used as human shields” by ministers.
Witnesses also complained about Boris Johnson’s inconsistent behaviour, which was “all over the place”.
Sir Patrick wrote: “As another person said, it’s so inconsistent, it’s like bipolar decision-making.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the inquiry also heard how Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme during the pandemic confused the public over what activities were safe.
A submission from the British Medical Association (BMA) said the UK Government failed to “provide clear, consistent and visible public health messaging” throughout the pandemic, including on working from home and socialising.
It added: “The Eat Out to Help Out initiative encouraged social mixing and confused public health messaging during 2020, suggesting that it was safe for people to socialise before vaccines were available and when the risks of Covid-19 remained high.
“And in 2020 alone, the Government campaign around working from home initially encouraged it, then required it, then encouraged it again, then strongly discouraged it, then encouraged it again and then required it again.
“This pattern continued throughout 2021 and into 2022. This lack of clarity and consistency undermines the public’s understanding of and confidence in core public health messaging.
“Further, high-profile failures of MPs, senior advisers and civil servants to adhere to the rules fuelled mistrust and misinformation and further impacted the effectiveness of public health messaging.”
The inquiry also heard that the BMA believes the Government’s response to the pandemic was “categorised by a failure to take a sufficiently precautionary approach and by missed opportunities to learn lessons as the pandemic progressed”.
The BMA’s submission said these failures placed healthcare workers at “greater risk of infection and death”, put extra pressure on “already stretched and stressed healthcare and public health systems” and “caused moral distress and injury for doctors and healthcare workers who felt unable to provide the right level of care, including for non-Covid patients”.
The Government’s actions to reduce the spread of Covid-19 were also “too slow”, with the failure to cancel mass gatherings and large sporting events in March 2020 leading “to higher cases, hospitalisations and very likely deaths”, it said.
The BMA submission said the first UK-wide lockdown was also too late while “the mandating of face masks for the general public was also introduced far too late and much later than in many other countries”.