UK: Scientific Evidence for Coronavirus Response Will Be Kept Secret Until Pandemic Is Over

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The government has decided to keep the scientific evidence upon which it is basing its response to the Chinese coronavirus secret until the pandemic subsides.

Boris Johnson’s administration is facing increased calls for transparency on the actions being recommended by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) that is heading the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, records from the group’s meetings and the identity of its members will be kept secret until “Sage stops convening on this emergency”, the UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said.

At present, only a handful of scientists, including the chief medical adviser for England Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick, have been confirmed to be on the board of approximately 80 scientists, sparking concerns that the government is receiving limited and incomplete information from advisers.

Conservative MP Greg Clark said that the identities of the scientists should be revealed “in order to have some visibility into what institutions and disciplines are represented, it would be extremely useful to have the membership known”, The Times reports.

In response to Mr Clark’s call for transparency, Sir Patrick said that the government is operating on rules for the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (Cobra). He wrote: “This contributes towards safeguarding members’ personal security and protects them from lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence which may hinder their ability to give impartial advice.”

Dame Anne Glover, professor at the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, warned that the secrecy could be “limiting ourselves when we need fresh thinking”.

“Fears of lobbying, as mentioned by Patrick, are misplaced, I think. Openness supports trust and trust is really needed at the moment. It also opens up the possibility of very valuable challenge and input from ‘not the usual suspects’ which could be very helpful,” she said.

“If Sage was a cybersecurity committee or a defence committee, I could understand security concerns, but it isn’t. It’s an advisory group that should bring the best thinking that we have from every area, not just epidemiology, to bear on a significant crisis,” Dame Anne added.

In March, Sage published a series of papers based on mathematical modelling in support of the government’s decision to introduce a national lockdown and social distancing. Last week, a source inside No 10 told The Guardian that there are no plans to publish the scientific advice it has received since the lockdown was introduced.

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