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Jeremy Hunt is Chair of the Health Select Committee, a former Health Secretary, and is MP for South West Surrey.
“I support the Government’s caution about lifting lockdown, and I commend the Prime Minister for being honest about the complex choices we face.
I want to focus my comments on the quality of scientific advice received by Ministers. It is now clear that a major blind spot in the approach taken in Europe and America was our focus on pandemic flu rather than pandemic coronaviruses, such as SARS or MERS. Asian countries took a different path. As a result, Korea has had no more than nine deaths on any one day, Singapore is on just 20 deaths in total and Taiwan is on just seven.
The failure to look at what those countries were doing at the outset will rank as one of the biggest failures of scientific advice to Ministers in our lifetimes. One can understand the reluctance to look at a totalitarian regime such as China, when it dangerously covered up the existence of the virus at the outset. But why, when the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was modelling possible responses in January, did it look only at the extremes of total lockdown or mitigated herd immunity, rather than at the middle way of test, track and trace that was being pursued by the Asian democracies?
That failure led directly to another, namely the advice to stop community testing on 12 March. That meant that we had no idea where the virus was, while countries such as Germany continued community testing and saved many lives as a result.
A lack of interest in community testing led to another failure at the start of March. Even though infections were doubling every five days, SAGE advised Ministers against lockdown and advised them to continue with events such as the Cheltenham festival and the Liverpool champions league match. That meant that infections soon grew to a point where traditional contact tracing could not cope.
Of course Ministers have to take responsibility for their decisions. They have a duty to challenge and probe any advice, but their decisions are shaped by that advice. In that context, it would be totally wrong to blame individuals. Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty are outstanding scientists and any Government would be lucky to have their advice. At fault is a systemic failure caused by the secrecy that surrounds everything that SAGE does. Because its advice is not published, it cannot be subjected to scientific challenge. Nor is parliamentary scrutiny possible, even when a Government say they are following the science.
Until last week, we were not even allowed to know who sat on SAGE. We used to have similar secrecy over the interest rate advice that was given to the Chancellor. In 1997, the Bank of England was made operationally independent, lines of accountability were clarified and advice was made transparent.
Since then, inflation has not troubled the British economy. Had SAGE’s advice been published in January, an army of scientists from our universities could have challenged why test, track and trace was not being modelled. They could have demanded a ramp-up of testing and challenged the behavioural assumptions that delayed lockdown. We cannot know for certain, but the result may well have been better subsequent advice and many lives saved.
British science is world-beating because we have always championed inventiveness and encouraged challenge, so let us sweep aside the secrecy that surrounds SAGE and publish what it recommends, including dissenting views. In that way, we will harness the robust exchange of ideas, which has always been one of our greatest national strengths, and, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, come out of this crisis wiser and stronger.”
Hunt’s speech can be read in Hansard here.