Former chief scientist blasts government coronavirus response

As parents ready kids for school return and the debate over 'the science' rages, Sir David King tells Hilary Wainwright how the government got it wrong

August 30, 2020 · 7 min read
Prime Minister Coronavirus Press Conference Chief Medical Officer Chris Witty, Boris Johnson, and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (Pippa Fowles | No 10 Downing Street)

In part one of a two-part series, Hilary Wainwright talks to Sir David King, former government chief scientific adviser (2000-2007) and founder and chair of Independent SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies). Formed in May, the group aims to improve public understanding about how to handle Covid-19, as the official SAGE works in secrecy and the government’s incompetent handling of the crisis continues.

Hilary Wainwright: Why did you establish Independent SAGE?

Sir David King: When Independent SAGE was formed, we faced the complete mess that was happening from March onwards. I couldn’t stand back. We formed the independent SAGE because there was no mechanism for getting an understanding of the crisis and how it could be handled into the public domain.

HW: Effectively, you’re advising the public as well as advising the government.

SDK: Yes.

HW: What are the key principles of Independent SAGE?

SDK: First of all, transparency. Secondly, we have a wonderful team of people. These are people who are all in amazingly challenging day jobs, because they are virologists, epidemiologists, health care experts, all in enormous demand. We have virtually equal representation of men and women. We have a very good representation of BME people – critically important if we’re reaching out to the public.

HW: Concerning the principle of transparency – the membership and minutes of the official SAGE were secret?

SDK: It’s incredible but yes.

HW: And previously, when you were chief scientific adviser (October 2000 – December 2007)?

SDK: Then, everything was in the public domain. The notion of having an advisory group whose membership and minutes are not public is incredible to me – though I also gave advice into MI5 and MI6, so there was some advice that I couldn’t put into the public domain. Interestingly, the first minutes of the official SAGE were published while we held our first public meeting of Independent SAGE — while our meeting was on.

HW: What’s your explanation as to why the official SAGE was set up on this secretive basis?

SDK: The government certainly didn’t want the public to know that Cummings was a member of the committee. You shouldn’t have an adviser to the prime minister, who is not a scientist, also there, because then you’ve got two sources of potentially conflicting advice. Also, there were sensitivities amongst scientists trying to give their advice independently, with all of these civil servants there. If you’re not familiar with government, it can be quite a challenge.

HW: How many civil servants are on the official SAGE, relative to independent scientists?

SDK: Not counting sub-committees, out of the main group of 23, 13 are civil servants

HW: So SAGE is not a body of independent scientists? It’s a body that is controlled by government, given the dominance of civil servants in it?

SDK: I’m afraid I think that’s right [although] I have enormous respect for Sir Patrick Vallance [the current chief scientific adviser].

HW: Was this anything to do with this government’s view of the public – that the public must simply be told what to do, so the debate about the science can’t be open?

If it goes pear-shaped, it’s the scientists’ fault

SDK: Yes. The government want to be able to say, ‘We are following the science.’ If the public doesn’t know what the science advice is, the public has no means of knowing whether or not the government is being honest. But it’s going further than that. If it goes pear-shaped, it’s the scientists’ fault.

HW: Tell us about the post of chief scientific adviser? Is there a job description? What are their duties and powers? To whom are they accountable?

SDK: We must go to Churchill, at the beginning of the second world war. He needed a scientific adviser and the post was created. The post was shifted immediately after the war into the Ministry of Defence.

Then, under Harold Wilson, the role became the government chief scientific adviser By the time I got into the post there was a government Office for Science, with a very large budget and a staff of 150. The post is developed by the individual. Each chief scientific adviser has their own personal view of what the post is about.

My own view of it is that it is a critical bridge between the latest research in universities and the actions of government. In other words, it is a critical conduit for the knowledge base that is currently being developed in universities.

HW: What do you mean by ‘critical’?

SDK: I wanted to be able to say to the PM, ‘Every bit of advice I give you, I’m going to give the same advice out into the public domain.’ In other words, the transparency of the advisory system and the independence of the chief scientific adviser was being underlined by this process.

My role was to maintain the trust of the prime minister and the cabinet, on the one hand, and the trust of the public on the other hand. I came into government just at the end of another Ministry of Agriculture and Food (MAFF) crisis: the late 1990s BSE crisis – ‘mad cow’ disease. This was when the former MAFF minister, John Gummer, was filmed feeding his daughter a beefburger.

The Phillips inquiry into the BSE crisis was very, very critical of the way the scientists were kept quiet while Gummer went out there saying it was perfectly safe to eat British beef. The scientific community understood that, on the contrary, it was highly likely that this new disease in human beings – a brain disease, variant CJD – came from people eating British beef. That meant a massive loss of the beef market, not only in Britain but around Europe. Gummer tried to save the beef market and kept the scientific advisers from the media.

Chief scientific advisers have to be independent and to show their independence by being transparent – by putting the advice they are giving to government also into the public domain. Throughout my period I maintained that.

In part two of our exclusive interview, published online on Wednesday, 2 September, Sir David King explains how claims that the NHS is ‘coping’ erases the alarming truth: ‘We are really shortening lives in a dramatic way’. Click here to read now.

Sir David King was the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and Head of the Government Office for Science from October 2000 to 31 December 2007.

Membership of the Independent SAGE can be found here.

The full version of this interview appears in issue #229 ‘No Return To Normal’. Subscribe today to get your copy.

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