I was concerned that the government was exploiting scientific advisers – the Covid inquiry reveals this to be true.
The Covid investigation revealed that within No 10, there was a mix of conflicts, disorder, and incompetence that can best be described as an absurd tragedy. The main lesson to take away is to not elect a leader like Boris Johnson, who has been portrayed as a deranged ruler, vacillating between “letting it rip” and “locking everyone down”, and proposing absurd remedies from YouTube, such as blowdrying one’s nose to prevent Covid. While it may seem like witnesses are continuously attacking a dead body, rather than implicating former chancellor Rishi Sunak, ex-health secretary Matt Hancock, or former education secretary Gavin Williamson.
Occasionally, we may encounter inadequate leaders who are not a good fit for the current circumstances. As a public health scientist, I am particularly worried about the influence of scientists and their advice during the pandemic. Let’s take a closer look at the positions held by former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty.
It is now apparent that Whitty and Vallance were observers in a highly dysfunctional system and frequently expressed their frustrations and objections to the messaging and policies. For example, they warned about the risks of Sunak’s “eat out to help out” program, which Whitty referred to as “eat out to help out the virus”. Despite their disapproval, the initiative was implemented and was later linked to the increase in infections during the second wave. As more of Vallance’s diary entries are revealed, it becomes evident that their opinions were often disregarded and they had limited impact on the decision-making of No 10.
However, during interviews or joint press conferences with Johnson, they did not voice any of their concerns publicly. Instead, they echoed the government’s messages and their consistent presence alongside the prime minister gave the impression that they fully supported and aligned with the country’s policies and direction. This only served to make the public believe in the credibility of the “mad king”. Unfortunately, they were frequently utilized by an ineffective government to create the illusion of competence and scientific literacy.
I remember seeing this at the time and becoming increasingly frustrated by what appeared to be implied support for a government that was causing harm to people’s lives and livelihoods. On May 28, 2020, I sent an email to Whitty expressing my concerns (I am sharing this now as it is a publicly available document and was shared with the inquiry team). I wrote: “I have been surprised by how science is being used to justify political decisions – and the phrase ‘following the science’ when it is evident that scientists around the world and the WHO Health Emergencies Team, with whom I closely collaborate, would not come to the same conclusion.”
I expressed my concern, not just on my own behalf, but on behalf of many young scientists. It is disheartening to see esteemed senior medical professionals being used to justify decisions that are clearly detrimental to public health. Today’s events were a prime example of this, as we were silenced by the Prime Minister and unable to address a question that has significant implications for public health, particularly for a voluntary TTI program. This will have long-lasting consequences not only for scientists, but also for the role of independent advisors and the reputations of those who align themselves with a government that prioritizes harmful decisions over the well-being of its citizens. While I understand the desire to maintain influence behind the scenes, it begs the question – when attempting to influence those in power, who is truly being influenced? In hindsight, how much impact has science truly had on the decisions being made in the past 3 months?
There are various ways in which scientific impact can manifest. I, personally, made efforts to inform the general population about the urgent situation and was able to do so without any official government position. However, this approach often results in being excluded from important discussions. The government tends to prioritize confidentiality and secrecy, making it difficult to have a voice. Being vocal and transparent can lead to not being included in the decision-making process.
The Scottish government chose a new tactic by inviting critics to join them in discussions in order to promote diverse perspectives and prevent conformity. In April 2020, I was asked to be part of an advisory group, along with other scholars, which gave us a formal outlet to offer input and guidance. However, we were free to express our opinions in our public work and did not receive compensation.
Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to discuss with Whitty and Vallance their personal experiences. Both individuals are highly esteemed, intelligent, and committed to serving the public. Those who have worked with them commend their professionalism and perseverance. I believe that their perspective is focused on “harm reduction,” meaning that speaking out or resigning would have only worsened the situation. Additionally, they have both faced terrible public mistreatment and harassment for their efforts to guide the erratic ruler towards a more sensible path.
It may be necessary to have individuals who remain at the table and continue to try to influence decisions behind closed doors. The absence of competent individuals in these discussions would be even more detrimental. While external pressure can be effective, it also has its limitations. The political pressure placed on these individuals was evident, as seen when Vallance mentioned their objections to appearing at a press conference during the Dominic Cummings lockdown controversy. They feared that it would appear as though they were giving Cummings political protection. In an attempt to avoid this, they suggested that it was not the appropriate time to announce new measures, citing concerns about damaging their credibility. However, their efforts were unsuccessful.
We require civil servants working in government to serve as scientific advisors, guiding and informing politicians directly. However, it is important to note that although these advisors are not affiliated with any political party, they are not at liberty to publicly express their opinions or thoughts. It appears that they are expected to align with the government’s stance, even if they believe it to be detrimental or disagree with it. This creates skepticism among the public towards the statements made by government advisors, as it is evident that they are limited by their roles and desire to maintain their position within the inner circle.
On the other hand, academics who work independently are typically hired by universities, which safeguard free expression. As a result, we may have less impact on policies and are removed from decision-making and influential figures. While government advisors have the most influential potential for offering scientific solutions to issues such as pandemics and climate change, are they able to do so within the current system? Or are they silenced by personal and ideological intervention from politicians?
The investigation into Covid has uncovered the shortcomings of the current system. It may be necessary to reassess the authority and autonomy of government advisors, or consider incorporating truly impartial advisory panels. Without any changes, the public may have little confidence in “trusting the science” during future emergencies.
Devi Sridhar is the leader of the global public health department at the University of Edinburgh.