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'Following the science' rhetoric led to delay to UK COVID-19 lockdown, face mask rules

Also: Would have been great if they'd chatted to an epidemiologist about Eat Out to Help Out project

The UK government's insistence that it was simply "following the science" during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic was a big factor in the costly delay to the nation's first lockdown and postponed the introduction of face masks rules, according to an independent report.

The Institute for Government, a thinktank, said that during the early months of 2020, UK prime minister Boris Johnson's government relied too much on scientific advice – which was at best incomplete – to fill large gap in government strategy and decision-making that was not its role to fill.

"At times the prime minister and ministers waited until the scientific evidence was overwhelming rather than using it alongside other inputs to make their own judgements. This was captured in the government's rhetoric, which wrongly suggested that science could simply be 'followed' – and appears to have been a big factor behind the costly delay to the first lockdown. The reluctance to make judgements on a precautionary basis was also visible elsewhere, such as the delayed mandating of the use of face masks," according to the report [PDF] "Science advice in a crisis".

The government ministers had initially put too much weight on the ad hoc Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, but also failed to communicate across government and with other scientific advisors, it said. "Decision making at the centre of government was too often chaotic and ministers failed to clearly communicate their priorities to science advisers.

"This was most acute in the initial months but a lack of clarity about objectives persisted through the release of the first lockdown to recent decisions over the second lockdown and regional tiers," the report said.

An example of lack of communication was the Treasury's introduction of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme which created a government-supported 1-for-2 promotion at dining outlets. The project was created "without consulting the government's leading epidemiologists" and, although it has now ended, it has been found to be associated with increases in transmission of coronavirus, the IoG said.

According to Oxford Uni's World in Data, the UK is sixth in the world in terms of total COVID-19 cases, but fourth in infection rates per million of population (behind the USA, France and Brazil). More worryingly, it is currently number two in "new cases per million".

"The government's communication of the risk around key activities has also often been confusing. Ministers have switched back and forth between alarm and reassurance, while failing to drive home key messages, such as the risk of gathering in indoor and poorly ventilated settings," the report said.

On the plus side, the UK's science advice structures are well regarded. It was one of the first countries in the world to appoint a chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer. In 2009, it created SAGE, with flexible membership, to provide a consensus view to policy-makers.

The UK has had a few disease outbreaks, albeit less serious than the novel coronavirus that wrought havoc on the world stage, to adapt how it works with scientific advice during fast-changing circumstances. These included bovine spongiform encephalopathy (popularly known as "mad cow disease"), foot and mouth disease and "swine flu".

Control of these outbreaks did not all go well. During the 1990s mad cow disease outbreak, the government reassured the public UK beef was safe to eat, with then agriculture minister John Gummer pictured eating a burger with his daughter. Only in 1996 did it reverse its position and acknowledge a link between BSE in cattle and a neurological disease affecting humans which has been cited in 178 deaths.

According to the IoG, some of the problems around policy and scientific advice have re-emerged. These included the "blurring of policy decisions and expert advice; the need for politicians to interrogate advice, and for advisers to understand the policies they are informing; the risks of relying on uncertain modelling and of 'groupthink'; and a lack of transparency in explaining how evidence and advice are used."

Among its recommendations are that the Cabinet Office should ensure the COVID-19 cabinet committees use a "clear decision framework that integrates scientific, economic and other advice." The government should ensure any new public health measures are announced and explained in Parliament. Meanwhile, the government should be clearer about the purpose of press briefings and allow scientist-led briefings more often, the report said. ®

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