It began in the summer when a group of scientists decided to give the government a short, sharp lesson on how to use scientific advice in a transparent manner when tackling Covid-19. Once they had done that, the men and women of the Independent Sage organisation intended to disband.
But now the group, led by former government chief scientist Sir David King, is considering a move six months after its formation that would allow Independent Sage to fight on for years to come – but with an expanded agenda. This time it is considering a plan to hold ministers to account over a range of issues, including the UK’s attempts to tackle the climate crisis.
“I never envisaged Independent Sage lasting longer than three months,” said King. “We have all got other full-time jobs and this is a stressful business, but it is clear that we need to go for a lot longer. First with Covid, but in the longer term with other issues including climate change, which is the greatest threat to humanity, after all.”
In the middle of last spring and summer’s first wave of Covid cases, scientists like King were alarmed because the advice and membership of the government’s official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) were not being published. “So when ministers said they were merely following the advice of scientists we had no way of judging whether or not they were,” said King.
This is no longer true – Sage advice and membership is now made public – though this has not stopped Independent Sage from continuing its own analyses and attacking government policies. For example, the group has become highly critical of ministerial failures over the test, trace and isolate system.
“It isn’t good enough to test to people and then trace their contacts. You also have to isolate properly,” said King. “That is not happening in the UK. In cities like Birmingham, where lots of people live in multigenerational families, we are tracing Covid contacts and are then sending them back to those homes – to spread the disease through the whole family.”
Instead, Britain should have followed countries like Greece where hotels were requisitioned and Covid contacts allowed to isolate properly, King added. “That halted the spread there, but we did not isolate properly and so we have not contained the spread.”
King and the other senior scientists have been accused of undermining the established process that is involved in providing scientific advice to politicians. The group is unrepentant, however, and is now considering ways to continue its fight in other parts of British policy, including the nation’s new bid to become a major power in the battle against the climate crisis. Membership of Independent Sage’s new groups would change and include leading scientists in various fields, including climate science.
For the moment, King has welcomed Boris Johnson’s 10-point climate plan, announced last week, which promised to ban combustion engine sales by 2030, quadruple offshore wind power, boost hydrogen production to replace natural gas and invest £525m in new nuclear power.
However, King added that the country would need to be sure that clear scientific advice was used to determine the ways in which we disinvested from the fossil-fuel industry in favour of carbon-free technologies. “This is needed to reverse the established risk of rising sea levels globally over the coming decades which is already threatening to be civilisation’s biggest tragedy,” he said.
The blunders that afflicted Britain’s attempts to deal with Covid must not be repeated, added King. Hence the decision by Independent Sage to track new challenges, including Britain’s response to the climate crisis. Other areas of concern could be added.
King has a fairly strong record over climate issues, though he was criticised over one issue when in government: his initial acceptance that pollution from diesel vehicles could be controlled. “I had not anticipated that car manufacturers, starting with VW, would cheat the EU testing system,” he said. “Diesel became popular, emissions in cities rose dangerously and VW were heavily fined for this deception by US courts.”
The major problem facing the UK today, said King, was that Boris Johnson seems to be stuck in a mode of constant electioneering. “He is not trying to get the trust of the public but he really needs to do that. You cannot afford to be caught telling porkies.”