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The vague science of following advice

29 May, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Fiona Millar. Photo:

HAVE you noticed how more and more eminent scientists are publicly breaking away from the group of experts who have been advising the government on the virus crisis?

Weeks ago scientists – members of SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – seemed to have thrown a protective shield around the government which, in turn, said it was following their advice.

Then all this broke up when 12 equally eminent scientist formed their own rival group, the Independent SAGE, headed by the government’s former chief adviser, Sir David King, and aired their views on YouTube, quickly gathering thousands of viewers.

Last week, the rival group went live on YouTube for their second show, this time significantly compered by the popular TV medical presenter Dr Michael Mosley who is also a columnist for the Daily Mail. TV viewers of the rival group are clearly growing day by day judging by the members of the public who were encouraged to ask questions.

I noticed Fiona Millar, a well-known education writer, and long associated with Gospel Oak Primary School as a governor, was concerned about “safeguarding” children who were not at school. In reply Zubaida Haque, interim director of the Runnymede Trust, suggested teachers would find it difficult to educate as well as keep the children safe from infection, and thought not enough attention was being given to “pastoral” needs such as free meals.

Almost daily, rival scientists, such as Dr Allyson Pollock, Dr Susan Michie and Professor Anthony Costello, now appear regularly on news channels as experts – at the start of the crisis only official scientists, picked by the government, appeared on TV.

Airing his views this week in the current edition of the London Review of Books is Rupert Beale, a group leader of scientists at the prestigious medical research centre in Somers Town, the Francis Crick Institute.

He seemed disappointed the government did not follow quickly enough South Korea’s example of testing, tracking and tracing, as well as encouraging people to wear masks, pointing out how Britain’s deputy chief scientific advisor, Angela McLean “endorsed this approach”. As readers know, we are only now embarking on this course of action.

To Rupert Beale, the UK had a “lackadaisical response” to the crisis but, he conceded, it had followed a “vaguely scientific path”. How vague is what the rival group could discuss for hours.


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