Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Chemist David King is no stranger to politics or epidemics. From 2000 to 2007, King was chief scientific adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, U.K. prime ministers from the Labour Party. During that time, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease led to the culling of millions of sheep and cattle. Meanwhile, in humans, the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus spread from China to two dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, before the epidemic was contained.
In the current pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, King has criticized the way scientific advice has been handled by the Conservative U.K. government. He has charged, for instance, that the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) should be made public—along with its advice. King has assembled a dozen scientists into an unofficial panel that he calls an independent SAGE. Last week, it conducted its first meeting, which was livestreamed on YouTube.
Science interviewed King while he was preparing a report from the group’s first meeting. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: You’ve started an independent SAGE group. What’s the problem with the SAGE that’s already advising the government?
A: It is not operating in an open and transparent way. I’m not saying that all science advisory group meetings should be open to the public. But I do believe it’s very important that the chairman of the meeting, in this case, Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, should be out explaining to the public what the groups are saying, what the committees are discussing, and what the conclusions are in terms of the advice given to government. When the government says that it is following the advice of the scientific community, but that scientific advice is not known to the public, we, the public, cannot judge whether or not they are. There is a question as to whether ministers have been shielding themselves by using this issue that they are simply following science advice.
Q: Are there any specific examples that you’re thinking of?
A: Behind all of this is a dissatisfaction with the way the government has responded to this crisis.
Q: The United Kingdom has some of the best infectious disease experts in the world. Yet the country already has more deaths and cases than any other country in Europe.
A: You’re quite right, we have all of that expertise. But the expertise has not been reaching into government for action.
Q: Is that really fair? At the beginning of the outbreak, many U.K. researchers backed the government strategy and held positions that were unusual in Europe and the rest of the world. Isn’t there something else that needs to be explained: why a country with some of the best academics in the world ends up with a worse response than other places?
A: You’re putting your finger on a very, very difficult issue. If I look at the countries that have operated very well in response to this crisis, like Greece, New Zealand, South Korea, these are among the world leaders in terms of the lowest number of fatalities. Each one of those countries responded exactly as they should, they followed WHO [World Health Organization] guidance very, very closely. So there’s got to be a question as to whether there was actually a kind of, dare I say arrogance in the British scientific community, that we will resolve it our own way.
Q: The U.K. government has made many decisions in the handling of this pandemic. Are there particular decisions for which you would like to see the scientific advice underpinning them?
A: I’m going to make a very general point in answer to that and it’s based on recent history. We had a BSE [mad cow disease] crisis in British cattle, a terrible brain disease. The conclusion in the inquiry that was held into the government handling of the BSE crisis was that the ministers were telling the scientists what to say and not listening to science advice. And in particular, the result was driven by the desire to sell British beef here and abroad, rather than deal with the crisis that was pending in the transfer of disease to human beings. So the advice of the [inquiry] published just after I was appointed in November 2000, was: Chief scientific advisers and all science advisers in government should have an independent voice, which means they should be able to put their information and advice that they’ve given into government into the public domain. That became my mantra.
Q: So the lessons that were learned from the BSE crisis were basically unlearned?
A: Yes, that is what I’m saying. There were words said about the importance of independent science advice. But the delivery of that requires that sometimes very uncomfortable information can be put into the public domain by those science advisers. That is the way in which the trust of the public can be gained.
Q: Patrick Vallance did give press conferences and talk about scientific advice.
A: Until very recently, Sir Patrick has not been on his own in the public domain. He has been accompanied by the prime minister or a minister of government, and it has been very clear who is leading the interaction with the public.
Q: One issue has been the fact that it was not know who the members of SAGE are. After you set up the independent SAGE, a list of most members of SAGE was released.
A: That was a good response. It showed that there is some kind of sensitivity within government to what we are saying, and that gives me hope. However, it’s not nearly enough. We noted that not all members of SAGE were in that list. Some people said they didn’t want their names published.
Q: Two people were not named.
A: There’s a big contentious issue here, whether two people who The Guardian had leaked as being members of SAGE were, in fact, members or not. Those two are Dominic Cummings and his colleague [Ben Warner]. Both of them are political advisers paid for by the Conservative Party, not even civil servants who we believe were originally listed as members of the committee. So it’s interesting that only two names have not appeared.
Q: Some people argue that SAGE membership should be secret to keep them out of the crosshairs of lobbyists and media. The modeler Neil Ferguson resigned this week from SAGE after newspapers reported he broke lockdown rules to meet with a woman he was having an affair with.
A: We have a group of people politically against the lockdown, who are looking to run down the scientists who they think have been responsible for creating lockdown in Britain. They don’t look at the science and find where they might have gone wrong. What they do instead is find some “scandal,” to try and attack the individual. These actions within the media are reprehensible. And that’s what we should attack.
Q: How big a loss will it be for SAGE to lose his voice?
A: To be honest, his work is still seminal, his group will still keep publishing papers that will be highly relevant. They will not be ignored by SAGE, I’m sure of that. And there’s no reason why SAGE shouldn’t appoint one of his group. Unless, of course, his group is reluctant to come on knowing the kind of surveillance that the media can put on you.
Q: You streamed your first deliberations with the independent SAGE live on YouTube. Why?
A: The idea was to demonstrate to the public first of all, what an independent science advisory group would be like. We can report into the public domain. But in addition, there was a further thing I was trying to demonstrate, which is what a peer-review system looks like. So people could see when there were discussions and disagreements and arguments and how we emerged with a consensus view from a group of scientists who have very different experiences, different knowledge bases, and so on. And of course, we’re dealing with a very difficult situation: We’re dealing with human behavior, psychology, as well as biology and epidemiology and so on.
Q: What questions do you want to focus on with this new group?
A: We’re not arguing as to whether or not the government made the right decisions early on. It’s very clear that the wrong decisions were made. This independent SAGE is giving advice to government from today onwards. All of our advice is around how we get out of the lockdown. And that’s not a simple issue.
Q: Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a televised speech yesterday in which he tried to sketch a path forward. Do you think he got it right?
A: The comments of the prime minister last night were disappointing because of the lack of clarity and the rather mixed messages that were contained. And in our paper, which will be published tomorrow, we will be setting out considerably more detail about the process of coming out of lockdown and setting out a series of recommendations.
Q: What kind of mixed messages?
A: There’s a confusion there because we’re not told what conditions will be set out in the public transport sector to maintain safety nor are we told what conditions would be required in the workplace before the people can come back to work. So, to me these are two critical things that have been left out.
Q: So do you think he is getting bad scientific advice or is he not listening?
A: Since I don’t know the most recent advice going in from the scientific community, there’s no way of judging that. But it does look to me very much like a political decision. And the decision is probably driven by what I perceive to be a split in the Conservative Party and in the Cabinet, between those who want to get back to work as quickly as possible, and those who are concerned about the rapid spread of the virus again and a rise in deaths. And the prime minister’s speech was kind of treading between both camps.