An independent group of scientists has called on the UK government to change its approach to tackling COVID-19, releasing a set of recommendations that challenge the current strategy.
Styling itself as an independent version of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), Independent SAGE is composed of 12 scientists and public health experts. Its chairman is the former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, Sir David King.
The group has released a report detailing its recommendations and says the point of forming is, through transparency, to show the public what the scientific recommendations are, so they can judge whether actions taken by the government are correct.
One of the key areas of contention is the UK government’s initial policy of “herd immunity”, and subsequent plan to “flatten the curve” of infections and death, keeping the number below the point at which the NHS could become overwhelmed. This, according to the group, is “counterproductive and potentially dangerous”, and will "inevitably" lead to more outbreaks and deaths, which could mean further partial or national lockdowns.
“We detect ambivalence in the government’s strategic response, with some advisers promoting the idea of simply ‘flattening the curve’ or ensuring the NHS is not overwhelmed. We find this attitude counter-productive and potentially dangerous," the report states.
"Without suppression, we shall inevitably see a more rapid return of local epidemics resulting in more deaths and potentially further partial or national lockdowns, with the economic costs that will incur.”
Instead, it advocates “suppressing” the virus, by maintaining social distancing measures until it is safe to relax them.
The official SAGE group has faced accusations of lack of transparency, and advisors within that group were reportedly angry with the government for heavily redacting an official report before it was released to the public, fuelling accusations of “censorship”.
In the report — subtitled “Recommendations for government based on an open and transparent examination of the scientific evidence” — Independent SAGE sets out 18 main recommendations, some of which oppose what has happened, or what is currently happening in the UK.
The UK has the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 in Europe, according to available data, and the second-highest globally after the United States.
Some of the recommendations in brief
- The government should take all necessary measures to control the virus through suppression and not simply managing its spread
- Identify, isolate, test and treat all cases, and trace and
- quarantine contacts
- Citing concern about “inaccurate, incomplete and selective data presented by government”, the group calls for government ministers, NHS bodies and their officials to adhere to the Code of Practice for
- Statistics and the UK Statistics Authority
- Look at different modelling in response to the pandemic, alongside its conventional epidemiological modelling
- Enable population-wide habit-forming to avoid behaviours that transmit coronavirus
- Minimised risks in high vulnerability and institutional settings such as care homes
- Ensure workplaces are safe
- Learn from procurement failures over the last few months in anticipation of a second wave of infection
- Communities and civil society organisations should have a voice, be informed, engaged and participate in the exit from lockdown
- Strengthen the social safety net to protect most vulnerable in society
At a press conference held over Zoom following the release of the report on Tuesday, the group was asked why the UK needed an independent advisory group when the government had no shortage of expertise to call upon from official advisors.
Sir David King said it was a matter of transparency. “Why should it be secret?” he asked, of the official SAGE group. Demonstrating openly to the public what an independent science advisory group should look like, and releasing to the public the advice, means people can judge whether or not the best advice is being followed, he said.
And facing a question from a newspaper reporter over the political leanings of the 12-member group, King responded: “I hope anyone watching this briefing and reading the report will understand what we’ve put together is a range of the best experts. There was never a point where we looked at the political affiliation of anyone in our group. It is utterly absurd to look at this as a right or left issue. We are attempting to demonstrate what a science group looks like without any political interference in its workings.
“Please remember when writing headlines for your newspaper that the focus is on science. To suggest this is a politically biased group is to totally miss the point.”
The group were also highly critical of the government's new slogan. Replacing "Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives", it now reads "Stay alert, control the virus, save lives". The change was announced as Boris Johnson told people who are not able to work from home that they should "speak with their employer" about returning to work. Dr Zubaida Haque from the group pointed out this policy would affect people from more vulnerable communities.
"We know the stay at home message has been effective, it has protected vulnerable communities, even those in overcrowded multigenerational homes," she said.
"To some extent, this new slogan is reckless, as it puts the onus of responsibility onto individuals who don't necessarily have all the necessary information to protect themselves in this pandemic."
As of 11 May, 32,141 people have died as a result of COVID-19 in the UK.