MPs have called for greater transparency over Britain’s decision making in the coronavirus crisis amid concerns that policies are being drawn up without proper scrutiny.
The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) routinely publishes the minutes of its meetings, modelling studies, and other relevant documents, but non-scientific evidence that ministers consider is hardly ever made public, the Commons science and technology committee found.
In a report into the government’s use of scientific advice in the pandemic, the MPs called on ministers to publish all the evidence on economic, social and educational impacts that has fed into the nation’s coronavirus policies.
“Given the success with the transparency of scientific advice, that should be extended to the other advice that feeds into the decisions,” said Greg Clark, the Conservative chair of the committee. “There’s 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.”
Making the documents public would ensure people knew what evidence lay behind government policies, who provided it, and how it was weighed against competing concerns, Clark said. “One of the things about the transparency of scientific advice is that we know where it comes from, what are the papers, and how it is distilled into summary advice. It would be useful to know where the advice of other impacts is taken from, and what, in summary, its conclusions are,” he said.
The report says that the new Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), which has taken over some of the work of Sage, and prompted the UK’s move to the highest coronavirus alert level this week, should follow suit. Clark said the JBC should publish its own analyses, the documents that inform its decisions, and the minutes of its board meetings. “It seems that the JBC is going to be taking up more of the strain, so the same standards of transparency [as Sage] should apply,” he said.
“There is still insufficient visibility as to what advice was given to the government and over the transparency of the operation and advice of the new Joint Biosecurity Centre,” the report points out.
The prime minister and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, have claimed throughout the crisis that government is “following the science”. But the report suggests this is hard to confirm. While Sage now regularly publishes minutes which contain some recommendations, the actual advice to ministers is not formally released. The committee’s report urges the government to publish all of the scientific advice given to date by its chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, and England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and commit to disclosing future advice within two months of it being given, or the relevant policy being decided.
The MPs are particularly critical of the UK’s test, trace and isolate system, and question why ministers did not do more to learn from Asian countries that contained the outbreak more successfully. The report complains of “the continued lack of justification” provided by Public Health England “for taking a centralised approach” to testing, rather than a decentralised approach that could have been more effective.
The MPs’ call on government to justify the decision to opt for a largely centralised testing effort and publish its assessments of how well the system has worked, the impact on the nation’s health, and its value for money and effectiveness.