Skip to main content

Covid-19: How has the Government received scientific advice, and how has the advice been used? Cross-party group of MPs publish analysis

8 January 2021

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee today publishes its analysis of the way the Government has received, and applied, scientific evidence and advice during the first period of the coronavirus pandemic up to autumn 2020.

This report distils the evidence from scientists and policy makers given at a number of oral evidence sessions contemporaneous with rapidly evolving policy decisions, and from written submissions from leading experts. The Report, The UK response to covid-19: use of scientific advice, considers the nature and function of official scientific advisory structures; the transparency of scientific advice; and the use of data in informing the UK's covid-19 response.

Summarising key evidence taken by the cross-party group of MPs from March to November 2020, the new Report draws from the evidence a number of assessments and recommendations for the Government to take forward as it navigates the current and later stages of the coronavirus pandemic and future emergencies.

Key conclusions and recommendations

The principal conclusions and recommendations of the Report are:

  1. The Government has been serious about taking scientific advice, and the structures for this have effectively obtained and made use of the analysis and expertise of scientists of international repute. It should continue to do so.

  2. The length of the pandemic has placed exceptional demands on the people contributing their expertise and on the structures, which were designed for shorter term emergencies. The Government should consider how to support the resilience of the arrangements for longer term operation.

  3. Transparency of scientific advice is essential to allow – in the scientific tradition – rigorous scrutiny and promotes public confidence in decisions made in accordance with it. The initial arrangements around SAGE were not open enough. The system has benefited from improvements that have been made in response to previous recommendations from this Committee. The same standards of transparency should apply to new bodies like the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

  4. While scientists advising the Government are often of international standing, in the early stages of the pandemic a more explicit evaluation by public health authorities of the operational practices in other countries – such as test, trace and isolate measures in certain Asian countries – should have been made, and should be a clearer part of the consideration of new measures contemplated in future.

  5. Although the scientific analysis that informs government decisions is now much more transparent, the evaluation of other factors that the government takes into account to determine policy – such as impacts on livelihoods and educational progress – is markedly less visible. The Government should follow the approach to transparency that has now been established for scientific advice.

  6. It has been important and reassuring for the public to see and hear directly from senior scientists and that should continue. The public have become familiar with the importance of data and statistics to explain the need for policy responses. That is a good thing, but the advice of the Office for Statistics Regulation should be followed that care must be taken in the presentation of data in order to maintain public confidence in the use of statistics.

  7. Responding to an invisible virus requires scientists, policy makers and operational staff to have access to data. The slow start to testing during the early months limited knowledge of the spread and prevalence of the virus at a crucial time. Fragmentation of data across different public bodies needs to be resolved to allow the most effective response to the pandemic.

  8. The role of scientific advice in shaping the choice of operational targets has not always been clear. Targets for testing were set by ministers and it seemed that scientific advice assumed a level of capacity as given rather than indicating what was needed. Consideration of what operational capacity is needed should be made more explicit.

Chair's comments

Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, said:

"This pandemic has been the greatest test of the way in which the UK Government takes, and acts on, scientific advice in living memory.

“We believe that the Government has been serious in its intention to obtain and act on rigorous scientific advice, and that scientists – led by the Chief Scientific Adviser and Chief Medical Officer - have given outstanding service in providing analysis and explaining it to the public.

“SAGE began with too little transparency and has improved by publishing its membership, minutes and papers. Similar openness should apply to new bodies like the Joint Biosecurity Centre. There is nothing to fear from openness. The more transparent data, analysis and conclusions drawn are, the better it is for policy making and for public confidence.

“The Government should disclose the assessment it makes of the impact of measures it is considering on livelihoods, education and wellbeing as it now does with epidemiological analysis. This will be especially important when ministers eventually weigh choices of when it is appropriate to begin to lift the current restrictions.

“In the weeks ahead we will set out further considerations on specific areas including the test and trace system, and vaccine development and roll out. But at this stage we record our gratitude for the dedication of the UK scientists who have helped guide the country through the first stages of the pandemic, and those here and around the world who have provided the means – through vaccines – of giving mass protection from the virus more quickly than in any previous pandemic.”

The Science and Technology Committee also commit to further work considering the scientific, public policy and administration contributions to the UK's vaccine response, and to reporting more fully on the test, trace and isolate system and the mass testing programme in due course.

Further information

Image: Unsplash