The editorial discusses the ongoing investigation into the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic and the scrutiny faced by both scientists and officials.
The dynamic between the government and scientists is currently under intense scrutiny. The previous top scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, testified in the Covid inquiry on Monday, and Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, is expected to give his testimony next. Some of Sir Patrick’s opinions have already been made public through the release of excerpts from his diaries. His candid descriptions of politicians like Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, and Matt Hancock echo those of other recent witnesses who portrayed Mr. Johnson as incapable of leadership and lacking understanding of science, Mr. Sunak (former chancellor) as overly fixated on the economy at the expense of public health, and Mr. Hancock (former health secretary) as deceitful.
The surprising information revealed that Sir Patrick, who led the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), was not informed about Mr Sunak’s “Eat out to help out” program until it was publicly announced. Additionally, there was an instance where Mr Hancock requested for evidence in official advice to be altered, but the request was denied.
The comments made by Sir Patrick regarding the UK’s lack of preparedness for the pandemic were not surprising. However, it was impactful to have a respected scientist explicitly state that policy options were limited due to the ineffectiveness of the test, trace and isolate system. The NHS’s failure to provide data for modelling was also acknowledged, although not directly. When asked about his and Sage’s actions in the early months of the pandemic, Sir Patrick admitted that it was a mistake for scientists to believe they could control the spread of the disease. However, based on the information available at the time, he does not believe this error significantly delayed the March 2020 lockdown.
He also minimized the differences between himself and Prof Whitty that were observed previously. Instead of a clash of opinions, Sir Patrick stated that Prof Whitty’s cautious approach to lockdowns was a result of his role as the chief medical officer, which required him to consider the overall public health impact, including the potential increase in poverty resulting from an economic downturn.
Sir Patrick’s extensive knowledge in medicine and pharmacology adds significant value to his testimony. During questioning from Andrew O’Connor KC, his insights on the relationship between gathering evidence and making policies became even more relevant beyond the current pandemic. His frustration with politicians’ limited understanding of essential concepts, such as exponential growth, could be attributed to the impatience of a scientist with non-scientists during a crisis. However, it also brings up inquiries about the qualifications and characteristics of those deemed fit for the highest positions.
According to Sir Patrick, Mr Johnson discontinued his study of science at the age of 15. Currently, only 10% of those entering the civil service fast stream have backgrounds in science or math. Lady Hallett, who is leading the inquiry, highlighted Mr Johnson’s experience of being reprimanded for speaking candidly about the growing threat of Covid by civil servants who prioritized process over substance. As seen in previous sessions, there is an abundance of information available, making it a challenge to determine which lessons to extract from it. The inquiry is providing valuable knowledge not only about Covid but also about the functioning and values of the government.