‘A complete cock-up’: UK’s coronavirus response could result in 50,000 unnecessary deaths, Independent Sage chief says

Former chief scientific adviser says government ‘consciously allowed’ disease to spread

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Sunday 30 August 2020 09:02
Coronavirus in numbers

The UK is facing up to 50,000 unnecessary deaths because Boris Johnson’s government “consciously allowed” coronavirus to spread, a former chief scientific adviser has said.

Sir David King described the official response to the pandemic as a “complete cock-up by government”, driven in part by a desire to maintain secrecy around the scientific advice it was receiving.

In an interview with Red Pepper magazine, the first part of which is published today, Professor King said he founded the Independent Sage group of scientific experts to inform the public about Covid-19 because of the “complete mess” of the official response in the first months of the outbreak.

And in the second part of the interview, due for publication on Wednesday, he claimed: “The prime minister believed in the herd immunity programme … The prime minister said, ‘We have to be prepared for losing some of our loved ones, every one of us has to be prepared.’

“So, there was that expectation. They consciously allowed the disease to spread.”

Mr Johnson appears to have taken the “incredible” decision to keep the minutes and membership of his official Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) secret in the early weeks of the outbreak because he did not want the public to know that his senior advisor, the non-scientist Dominic Cummings, was taking part in its meetings, said Professor King.

The official Sage group was dominated by civil servants, who make up 13 out of 23 members of the main group, led by current chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, he said.

Asked if the make-up of the group meant it was not a body of independent scientists, he replied: “I’m afraid I think that’s right, (although) I have enormous respect for Sir Patrick.”

Sir David said that during his time as adviser to then prime minister Tony Blair from 2000-07, “everything was in the public domain”.

“The notion of having an advisory group whose membership and minutes are not public is incredible to me,” he said, noting that the first minutes of official Sage were published while the first meeting of the Independent Sage group was taking place in May.

“The government certainly didn’t want the public to know that Cummings was a member of the committee,” said Sir David.

“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.”

Former chief scientific adviser Sir David King

Sir David voiced concern that ministers were using scientists as a means of validating their policies, and warned they could easily become scapegoats if the situation worsens.

“The government want to be able to say, ‘We are following the science’,” he said. “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.”

And he warned: “Trust has been lost for several reasons. One is that the prime minister does not stick to the truth. It seems to me that he says what he thinks is convenient.”

Sir David said: “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.”

Since then, the independent group has been one of the most scathing and authoritative critics of the government’s handling of the pandemic.

It has repeatedly denounced the decision to outsource test and trace operations to private companies rather than entrusting them to local public health networks.

And it has called for an official “zero Covid” strategy to eliminate the disease altogether, in place of the government’s acceptance of persisting infection at low levels over the summer as the price of reopening the economy.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments