I feared scientific advisers were being used by the government – the Covid inquiry shows they were | Devi Sridhar

The Covid inquiry has shown us that inside No 10 there was a combination of squabbles, chaos and incompetence best described as an absurdist tragedy. The obvious takeaway is, “don’t elect someone like Boris Johnson” – who has been depicted in evidence as a mad king, sitting on his throne, oscillating between “let it rip” and “lock everyone down”, and offering up ridiculous YouTube-derived remedies like blowdrying your nose to keep Covid away. Although it can feel as if witness after witness is sticking another knife into a dead carcass, rather than implicating the then chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the former health secretary, Matt Hancock, or the former education secretary, Gavin Williamson.

But sometimes we will have weak leaders unsuited to the times. As a scientist in public health, I’m more concerned about the role of scientists and scientific advice during the pandemic. Here, it’s worth zooming in on the roles of the then chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty.

What’s now clear is that Whitty and Vallance were observers in a totally dysfunctional system, and often privately expressed their frustrations and opposition to messaging and policies. For instance, they raised the dangers of Sunak’s “eat out to help out” scheme, which Whitty called “eat out to help out the virus”. The idea went ahead despite their disapproval, and was implicated in the second wave of infections. As more of Vallance’s diary entries become public, it’s clear that both advisers’ views were often marginalised, and they ultimately had limited influence on No 10’s decision-making.

Yet when appearing in interviews or alongside Johnson in daily press briefings, none of their concerns were publicly articulated. Both reinforced government messaging, and their daily presence next to the prime minister made them seem supportive and aligned with the policies and direction the country was taking. They made the “mad king” seem believable to the public. Too often they were used by a dysfunctional government to appear competent and scientifically literate.

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I recall watching this at the time and growing increasingly frustrated by what seemed like tacit support for a government that was costing people their lives and livelihoods. On 28 May 2020, I wrote Whitty an email outlining my concerns (I share this now, given it is a public document and shared with the inquiry team). I wrote: “I have been quite taken aback by how science is being used as a shield for political decisions – and the use of the phrase ‘following the science’ when it is clear that scientists across the world would not reach that conclusion, nor the WHO Health Emergencies Team which I work closely with.”

“It is concerning (and not just for me, but for a number of younger scientists),” I went on, “to see respected senior medics used to justify decisions that are clearly not good for public health. Today was a clear example of that – being silenced by the PM and not being able to answer a question that has clear public health implications, especially for a TTI [test-and-trace initiative] scheme that requires voluntary compliance. This will have lasting implications for scientists as a whole, the role of independent advisors, as well as for the reputations of those who stood with a government that is clearly making decisions harmful to the health of its citizens. I understand that you might be willing to compromise your voice and use influence behind the scenes, but this reminds me of a quote – when you try to influence the powerful, who is actually influencing whom? Looking back at the past 3 months, how much has science actually influenced the decisions being made?”

Scientific influence comes in many forms. I was someone who tried to educate the public about the crisis and could speak independently, given I didn’t hold any formal government role. Working this way usually means you are locked out of the room. Government is too often about confidentiality, closed doors and discretion. Speaking openly has the consequence of not being invited “in the room where it happens”.

Taking a different approach, the Scottish government made the decision to bring critics into the room to help diversify the views expressed and avoid groupthink. They invited me on to an advisory group in early April 2020, alongside other academics, and this provided a formal channel to provide input and advice. But we were able to say what we liked in our public-facing work, and received no payment.

I haven’t had a chance to talk to Whitty and Vallance about their experience. They’re both incredibly respected, intelligent and public-oriented individuals; those who worked with them praise their professionalism and resilience. I presume that their view is one of “harm reduction”: speaking out or resigning would have meant an even worse situation. They also both received dreadful public abuse and harassment for roles in which they tried to steer the mad king in a sensible direction.

Perhaps we do need people who stay at the table, who keep trying to influence behind closed doors, because not having anyone competent there is even worse. Pressure from outside has its limits. But the political pressure on them was clear, such as Vallance noting that they objected to appearing at a press conference in the wake of the Dominic Cummings lockdown scandal, fearing that it would appear to be giving Cummings political cover. He wrote that they “tried to get out of it by suggesting that it was not the right day to announce new measures, and that this will undermine our credibility. No luck.”

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We need scientific advisers who are employed as civil servants within government to help influence politicians and brief them directly. But we must remember that while they’re “independent” of a political party, they’re not free to speak to the public openly or say what they think. They seem to need to toe the government line, even when they know what’s being done is harmful, and when they disagree with what’s being said or done. This makes it difficult for the public to believe what government advisers are saying – it’s clear they’re constrained because of their positions, and their wish to stay in the inner circle.

In contrast, independent academics are generally employed by universities, where freedom of speech is protected. The consequence is we have less policy influence, and sit at a distance from decision-making and key leaders. Potential scientific solutions for everything from pandemics to climate change are most powerful coming from government advisers – but in the current system, are they able to do this? Or are they muzzled by personal and ideological interference from politicians?

The Covid inquiry has revealed the failings of the current setup. Perhaps the power and independence of government advisers must be re-examined, or truly independent advisory groups should be brought in. If nothing changes, the public will have little reason to “trust the science” during the next crisis.

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