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Committee writes to the Prime Minister: Lessons learned so far from the COVID-19 pandemic

19 May 2020

The Science and Technology Committee has today shared a series of findings in a letter written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The 19 page letter, which sets out a number of recommendations to the Government, is based on evidence heard as part of the Committee's inquiry into UK science, research and technology capability and influence in global disease outbreaks.

Backed by a cross-party group of MPs, the publication details ten key lessons the UK Government should learn from its experience of handling the first months of the pandemic. Drawing on the evidence of scientists and other relevant experts from the UK and around the world who have thus far provided the Committee with a wide range of insights, the recommendations include:

  • The call for publication of the evidence basis and rationale informing Public Health England's decision to concentrate testing in a limited number of its own laboratories and expand testing capacity gradually, rather than surging capacity through a large number of available public sector, research institute, university and private sector laboratories. The letter states that the decision, which led to the discontinuation of community testing, is 'one of the most consequential made during [the] crisis' and urges the Government to learn from its experience in anticipation of possible vaccine manufacture. 
  • That the Government 'urgently' build up capacity for contact tracing, underlining the importance of contact tracing in managing the easing of lockdown measures in the UK and minimising the risk of a second peak of infections.
  • That the Government set out a clear approach for managing the risks around asymptomatic transmission of the disease,
  • That further transparency is needed regarding the provision of scientific advice, providing clear distinction between scientific advice and policy decisions. This includes:
    o a call for the now public list of members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to be updated regularly, including with the number of meetings the named participants attended;
    o a request for the disciplines of SAGE participants who are not publicly named to be disclosed; and 
    o recommendations that papers on which SAGE draws for its advice to be published promptly after each relevant meeting, as well as for a summary of the scientific advice which has informed Government decisions to be published.

The Committee also makes a recommendation relating to the systematic recording of the ethnicity of those dying of COVID-19, stating that such data may help progress understanding of the disproportionate number of deaths of those from BAME backgrounds.

The letter has reached these conclusions as a result of the inquiry's first six public evidence sessions. The inquiry, which captures contemporary evidence on decisions and assessments made by Government during the pandemic, continues. 

Chair's comments 

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

"The Government has drawn extensively on scientific advice during the pandemic and should continue to do so.

The Government should follow the best traditions of science in being transparent about the evidence and advice on which it makes decisions, and by being willing to continually learn from evidence and experience and not being afraid to adjust its approach in response.

Greater transparency around scientific advice; putting capacity in place in advance of need, such as in testing and vaccines; collecting more data earlier and learning from other countries' approaches are some of the early lessons of this pandemic that are relevant to further decisions that will need to be taken during the weeks and months ahead.

We hope the Government will act on these recommendations which are offered in a constructive spirit based on the evidence we have taken so far."

Further information

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