January 17, 2022

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Government health experts ‘need greater independence from Whitehall’

UK politics & policy updates

Neil Ferguson, one of the country’s leading coronavirus experts, has suggested that the positions of chief scientific and chief medical officers should be made independent from the government.

The renowned epidemiologist, who is director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, has been a key voice in shaping prime minister Boris Johnson’s policy towards Covid-19 and his modelling has been central to the country’s lockdown strategy.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Ferguson said an important legacy of the pandemic should be to reconsider the roles of senior expert advisers in Whitehall.

“We have this very well-established system of a chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer. But they are government employees. I think they’ve done a great job in general, but they are constrained in what they can say and do in public by their positions,” he said.

Ferguson pointed out that other countries have “completely independent people in those roles” and the UK should consider this in its official inquiry into the pandemic, due to start in spring 2022.

Many scientists agree with Ferguson that advisers should be allowed more independence and greater freedom to criticise ministers — and almost all say there is too much official control over government experts speaking publicly. 

Covid is going to be with us really indefinitely into the future and will probably cause waves of infection every year.

Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College, said: “It would be beneficial for scientists to have more direct communication with politicians and ministers, rather than having their views filtered through the CSA and CMO.”

“Captains of industry seem able to speak directly to members of the government, so why can’t senior scientists?,” he added.

Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia, said he too agreed with the thrust of Ferguson’s remarks. Like Openshaw, he lamented the loss of Public Health England, which was recently rolled into a new national Health Protection Agency.

“We need such independence, otherwise public health suffers,” said Hunter.

Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser, was motivated to set up Independent Sage, a group of experts unaffiliated to Whitehall, in response to what he saw as the lack of autonomy of the official Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies).

King added that he had far more freedom to speak to the media in the early 2000s than Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty have today.

But one Sage member, who did not want to be named, said Valance and Whitty saw their main job as “preventing a catastrophe and that meant fighting inside government to get the right policies in place to do that”.

If they had been openly critical they would have been sacked — and their replacements would have been in the same position, said the Sage member.

In his interview, Ferguson also argued that scientists should have more direct contact with politicians.

“None of the scientists actually on these committees have directly talked to politicians — it all goes to those two positions”.

He added that widening access could lead to more nimble decision-making in future crises.

“Whether that can be opened up in a way to give a . . . direct connection between the people doing the research and the people making the decisions, without risking a particularly charismatic scientist dominating things, I think those things do need some consideration.”

Asked whether the UK’s Covid-19 cases would continue to decline or rise again, Ferguson said the outlook for the next two to three months would be “quite unpredictable”.

“Covid is going to be with us really indefinitely into the future and will probably cause waves of infection every year. But hopefully, with the use of vaccination, we can manage it without the emergency measures we’ve had to employ in the past 18 months,” he said.

Ferguson also responded to attacks that scientific advice has been unduly influenced by the individual political views of scientists.

“We . . . have a diversity of opinions. I certainly reject the term used in some publications recently that we’re all ‘leftwing’.”

He added: “I think it’s presumptuous to assume that you know Chris Whitty’s politics. And to my knowledge, I don’t think he is particularly leftwing. I think scientists do the very best they can to give objective advice on the scientific facts.”

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