The public deserves to know what happened in the secretive scientific debates that have informed government policy
A week ago Jeremy Hunt, the chair of the health select committee review of the UK’s Covid-19 response, said that some actions represented “the biggest failure of scientific advice to ministers in our lifetime”.
Last Thursday, when pressed by Kirsty Wark on BBC’s Newsnight about why the community test, trace and isolate strategy in tackling the pandemic was abandoned as a policy on 12 March, Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), was commendably open and honest: “I do not remember the truth of that [what Sage said] on 12 March … [but] testing has been critical for every country that has controlled the epidemic … in retrospect it was [a mistake] … we should have been testing earlier.”
On Saturday, however, when Sir Mark Walport, chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, and another core member of Sage, was asked the same question on Radio 4’s Today programme, he responded differently. “Advice from the scientific community was always to test as much as possible,” he said. It was a question of logistics – the capacity wasn’t there. In other words, Walport saw no failure of scientific advice to government ministers – simply a failure of people in labs and Public Health England to respond to the scientific advice.