The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is to see its role in the coronavirus crisis downgraded with the nation’s new Joint Biosecurity Centre tasked with doing more of the heavy lifting, it was claimed today.
The JBC will take over monitoring the spread of the deadly disease with SAGE now expected to meet less often.
The move, first reported by the BBC, has sparked controversy among scientists who say nothing is known about who works for the JBC and fear it will become secretive organisation.
Funded by the Department of Health, the Joint Biosecurity Centre, is part of the NHS Test and Trace scheme and ultimately under the control of Baroness Dido Harding.
Experts today said it would be ‘worrying’ if the role of SAGE – a panel of top independent scientists who help the Government for free – was demoted.
Amid concerns about transparency SAGE now, for the first time, has revealed a list of its members and regularly publishes papers from its meetings, which happen behind closed doors with officials in Whitehall.
But top researchers fear the JBC would not commit to the same level of openness and that the science behind the Government’s decisions would be less clear.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is set to see its role in the coronavirus response downgraded, according to reports. Two of SAGE’s key members, Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, are pictured alongside Boris Johnson in Downing Street in March
The JBC is currently tasked with helping the Government’s top experts to set the coronavirus threat level, which is at three out of five.
It is staffed by epidemiologists and data analysts who will now apparently be tasked with figuring out ways to best identify and stop new outbreaks of the disease.
It is headed by Dr Clare Gardiner, a qualified epidemiologist, medical researcher, and cybersecurity director at GCHQ.
WHAT ARE SAGE AND THE JOINT BIOSECURITY CENTRE?
SAGE is the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
It is a panel of scientific experts in a variety of fields who are convened to provide advice to ministers and Government officials in the event of an emergency.
The members of the panel – except for those representing the Government, including Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance – are not paid for their involvement.
The job of SAGE is to present the latest scientific evidence on a particular subject and to discuss it in round-table meetings to consider how it should influence the Government’s policy and decisions.
The members of SAGE are not set in stone and change regularly, depending on the nature of the crisis it is responding to. The group is chaired and organised by the Government Office for Science, of which Sir Patrick Vallance is the head.
Joint Biosecurity Centre
The Joint Biosecurity Centre is a new organisation set up by the Government in May this year.
The JBC has been tasked with monitoring outbreaks and has been assisting the nation’s chief medical officers in setting the coronavirus threat level.
Its staff consists of epidemiologists and data analysts but it is currently unclear exactly how the JBC will operate with other bodies like Public Health England.
She reports to Baroness Dido Harding, the chief of NHS Test and Trace and the entire JBC organisation falls under the control of the Department of Health, which answers to the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock.
Scientists fear that allowing scientists on the Government payroll to advise on Covid-19 will compromise its independence.
Dr Richard Horton, editor of the medical journal The Lancet, said on Twitter: ‘The replacement of SAGE by the Joint Biosecurity Centre as the principal mechanism for advising government on the intersection of Covid-19 science with policy is a setback for indpendent scientific advice to government, a setback for transparency, and a setback for public trust.’
Professor Susan Michie, a health psychologist at University College London, said: ‘With deaths in England over 100 a day and no clear strategy as to how to reduce this to zero Covid, it would be very strange and worrying to reduce the role, cohesiveness and frequency of SAGE and to transfer responsibilities to a new body, the Joint Biosecurity Centre, that is shrouded in secrecy, with no information about its members, how they were selected, and methods for governance, oversight and accountability.
‘Transparency of science and the relationship between science and policy is going to be key to public trust, which the Government needs to rebuild urgently.’
SAGE will now take more of a back seat role, meeting less frequently, and with its many sub-groups reporting directly to the relevant ministers.
Insiders have pointed out that SAGE is designed to respond to emergencies but it is not necessarily set up to work for a lengthy period of time under massive pressure.
Some believe it is just not sustainable to expect SAGE members to continue working in the way that they have been.
A spokesman for the group told the BBC: ‘SAGE will continue to provide a single consensus view of scientific advice at the heart of government decision-making, to inform the national strategic response to the coronavirus epidemic.
‘As we move into the next phase of the coronavirus response, the JBC will complement the work of Sage, providing more operational focus including data analysis and epidemiological expertise, with the aim of ensuring that outbreaks of coronavirus are detected and brought under control quickly.’
It remains unclear exactly how the JBC will operate and how it will fit in and work with other government bodies like Public Health England.
Former government chief scientific adviser Sir David King said: ‘Are the JBC scientists going to be willing to be cross-examined by the media, or is it a body feeding information behind the scenes to ministers?
‘If it is the latter, then how will government regain the trust of the public?’
Professor Robert Dingwall, a sociologist at Nottingham Trent University, said: ‘I think that experience has shown that the present structures are not ideal, although I am not sure that the JBC is the right way to go…
‘There is relatively little in the public domain about the staffing and working of the JBC.
‘I would certainly agree that more information would be desirable as it is put together and that there should be a commitment to transparency in its advice and reports.
‘Personally, I would prefer to see a more interdisciplinary body created as the top tier, linking the chief scientists of major government departments with a range of high-level outside expertise in the sciences and social sciences, and supported by a permanent director and secretariat.’
Despite criticisms of the way the JBC appears to be eclipsing SAGE and becoming the go-to advisory body for officials, experts did not all speak fondly of SAGE.
Professor Dingwall said: ‘SAGE has normally been a group convened for specific emergencies with a fluid membership, reflecting the nature of the event.
‘The danger of such a system is that too narrow a range of expertise may become involved, with a limited degree of intellectual challenge and critical scrutiny.
‘In the case of the present pandemic, for example, there has clearly been a slippage from the societal approach envisaged in the 2007 plan to a narrower biomedical/public health approach.’
And Professor Derek Hill, a medicine expert at University College London, added: ‘It is important that the JBC learns lessons from the Covid-19 response to date.
‘One issue that was underestimated is the importance of medical equipment, like PPE, ventilators, and testing kits in managing a pandemic.
‘It is essential that JBC has access to expertise on these sorts of technologies: the way they are developed and regulated, and their performance. SAGE seemed to have limited expertise in these areas.’
Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser, has questioned how the Joint Biosecurity Centre will operate