Professor Ferguson’s much publicised breaking of lockdown rules, followed by his stepping down from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), has focused the public eye on the use of scientific evidence for informing the response to COVID-19. In the resulting debates, this individual error of judgement has been used to try to discredit the wider scientific basis for the lockdown. This amplifies the misconception that a single scientist was the ‘architect of the lockdown’, having single-handedly convinced the government to introduce drastic social distancing measures. But while Prof Ferguson is undoubtedly an influential scientist, the reality of how science has informed, and keeps informing decision-making is quite different.
In response to the COVID-19 epidemic, SAGE has gathered a large body of expertise across various fields relevant to epidemic response. The consensus of this committee is used as the scientific advice to the government and helps inform the decision making process. At the time of writing, SAGE lists 56 participants, and receives inputs from a much larger number of advisors through dedicated sub-committees. The sub-committee focusing on modelling has so far included 44 contributors, most of whom are independent academic researchers, who themselves represent a large number of groups throughout the country and their ongoing work. Hence, any scientific advice to the UK government, including advice which preceded the lockdown is the result of the work of hundreds of researchers throughout the UK. The government may then take this advice, as well as a number of other considerations, into account when making decisions.
The large body of scientific evidence available to UK scientific committees is discussed, debated, and summarised in consensus statements. Contributing research teams also publish regular reports, data, code and scientific papers providing more details and transparency on their analyses. In early March 2020, the emerging consensus amongst scientists involved in this country-wide consultation was that SARS-CoV-2 was circulating widely in the UK, it was capable of causing substantial hospitalisations and fatalities, and that in the absence of drastic social distancing measures, the healthcare system would rapidly become overwhelmed in the same way that it had been in Northern Italy at the time. Although new studies and data have since emerged, this consensus has not changed.
Throughout this epidemic, UK-based scientists have provided independent evidence and analysis to decision makers, both in the UK and internationally. This is a huge ongoing effort by a large community working collaboratively to constantly reassess data, refine methodology, challenge assumptions, and compare and debate results in order to reach a scientifically sound consensus. They are in turn supported by a vast network of researchers and health agencies reporting data from hospitals, laboratories, care homes and communities across the world.
With the COVID-19 crisis likely to last many more months, this continuing scientific effort will play an important role for improving situation awareness and informing policies. This effort is, and will remain a collaborative one.
Signed this letter:
- Dr Thibaut Jombart, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
- Dr Stefan Flasche, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
- Dr Marc Baguelin, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
- Prof Julia Gog, University of Cambridge
- Dr Sebastian Funk, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
- Dr Adam Kucharski, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
- Prof Mark Jit, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
- Prof John Edmunds, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
- Dr Petra Klepac, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
- Dr Louise Dyson, University of Warwick
- Dr Paul Birrell, Public Health England
- Dr Andre Charlett, Public Health England
- Dr Edwin van Leeuwen, Public Health England
- Prof Daniela De Angelis, MRC Biostatistics Unit, University of Cambridge
- Prof Matt Keeling, University of Warwick
- Dr Leon Danon, University of Exeter
- Dr Rosalind Eggo, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
- Dr Michael Tildesley, University of Warwick
- Dr Edward Hill, University of Warwick
- Dr Ellen Brooks Pollock, University of Bristol
- Dr Thomas Finnie, Public Health England
- Dr Lorenzo Pellis, University of Manchester
- Prof Karl Friston, University College London
- Dr Chris Jewell, Lancaster University
- Dr Thomas House, University of Manchester
- Dr Nick Gent, Public Health England
This piece reflects the views of its signers; it does not reflect the views of their respective institutions.