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Covid-19: Scientific Advice

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what specific action they took to address COVID-19 as a result of the meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on 11 February.

My Lords, on 11 February, SAGE advised that the reasonable worst-case scenario for the coronavirus pandemic should continue to reflect influenza planning assumptions. In the light of this, the Government continued to prepare for and mitigate the worst excesses of the reasonable worst-case scenario. This included holding a number of COBRA meetings and increasing activity in a number of areas, including excess deaths planning, developing options for a surge of care staff and further developing legislative options.

The SPI-M consensus statement to that meeting says:

“It is a realistic probability that there is already sustained transmission in the UK, or that it will … become established in the coming weeks.”

Why did the Government not act on this scientific knowledge? Two weeks later, care homes received government advice stating that

“there is currently no transmission of COVID-19 in the community. It is therefore very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home … will become infected.”

My Lords, it is important to remind the House that at the time of the meeting on 11 February there were only eight confirmed cases in the United Kingdom. The Government have always been guided by the best scientific advice. At every stage, scientists have sought to give us the best information about what was a very novel infection—it still is. Ministers and officials tried to take the right decisions in the public interest. We will come out of this best by holding to the sense of national interest and resolve with which we went into it and holding any inquests when the pandemic is beaten.

My Lords, despite saying in January that diagnosis capacity was good, by 11 February SAGE said that it was not and—erroneously, as it turned out—that it would not be possible for the UK to accelerate coronavirus testing alongside regular flu testing. Rather than focusing on how to boost it, it asked PHE and SPI-M to develop criteria for when contact tracing is no longer worth while and for when it could be stopped. Were the criteria developed and approved by Ministers before contact tracing was stopped, and why were the Government so slow to reverse that flawed decision?

My Lords, I could not catch all the details of the noble Lord’s question. I apologise on the record to him for not answering fully a previous question he asked. If he does not mind, I will write to him on the subject. I remind the House, having caught enough of his question, that this was an evolving crisis and the Government have done a great deal to procure and deliver testing—now over 200,000 a day—and provide places in hospital beds.

My Lords, a SAGE paper of 11 February made it clear that stopping large gatherings and, more particularly, the closure of pubs, nightclubs and similar venues would slow the spread of the infection. That did not happen for more than another six weeks. Can the noble Lord tell the House whether that advice was not acted on immediately as a result of putting it before focus groups? Can he say how many elements of SAGE advice have been subject to focus groups before being adopted, or not adopted?

My Lords, I cannot answer on focus groups; the focus group I care about is Parliament and responding to it. The advice from SPI-M-O on public gatherings was actually rather more equivocal than the noble Baroness suggests. However, the policy evolved and many of those who follow the public press conferences will remember the Deputy Chief Medical Officer talking about a number of the different factors involved. It is important to recall what stage of the crisis we are talking about: 11 February, when there were eight confirmed cases.

My Lords, even after many months we still do not know everything that we should about this virus. Is it not wholly unreasonable to criticise members of the scientific committee for offering advice that was true to the best of their ability at the time? Does this not underline that, ultimately, it is Ministers who will have to make decisions regarding the lifting of various measures, and that while they should take the advice of the scientific community in doing so, it is ultimately their responsibility?

I strongly agree with my noble friend, who has great experience as a Minister and a distinguished career. Of course, responsibility ultimately lies with Ministers for taking decisions. Ministers wrestle with those difficult decisions every day. On balance, I believe that Ministers have done their very best to serve the people of this country in this unprecedented crisis. The time for reviews is when the curtain comes down, not when we are still fighting the drama.

In the week after the SAGE meeting that my noble friend Lord Scriven and the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, referred to, SAGE met again, on 20 February. The SPI-M report on community transmission, dated 17 February, that was presented at that meeting states at paragraph 16:

“Some believe … that there may already be sustained transmission.”

However, government guidance on 25 February for care homes states:

“There is no need to do anything differently in any care setting at present.”

Why were care homes still being advised that there was little likelihood of infection?

My Lords, with the greatest respect, I am answering a Question about the SAGE meeting on 11 February. If Members wish to ask questions about further stages, I will have to reply to them in writing.

My Lords, the Science and Technology Committee, on which I sit, has received a very sensible suggestion in evidence to our Covid-19 inquiry. It proposes establishing a working protocol for SAGE to clarify the relationship between scientific advice and political decisions, and to improve transparency of processes. It is modelled on the already effective protocols of ACMD and the investigatory powers committee. Does the Minister agree that this could be a sensible step forward? Would he meet the distinguished scientist who proposed it?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very valuable suggestion. I will make sure that it is drawn to the attention of my colleagues progressing this matter.

My Lords, Professor Jeff Sachs, in his powerful analysis of countries’ responses to Covid-19, concludes that the Asia-Pacific region has been successful in controlling Covid using low-cost solutions: face masks, physical distancing and test and trace. Germany used test and trace immediately after one case was identified—not eight—and use of face masks shot up in April. Germany has been the great success story of Europe. Can the Minister tell the House whether the SAGE meeting on 11 February discussed the actions being taken in the Asia-Pacific region? I fear not, but can the Minister now assure us that the Government will give proper priority to the availability of face masks in every high street and station so that they become the norm in this country, as in the Asia-Pacific region?

My Lords, the SAGE meeting on 11 February certainly asked the Foreign Office to secure information from heads of mission around the world. The Government are committed to continuing to fight this ongoing crisis, but again, the situation is evolving, knowledge is evolving and hindsight is a wonderful thing. I believe that we should focus on the task in hand of defeating the virus, learning the best we can as we go and then evaluating performance in peacetime, not in the middle of the war.

My Lords, I have never before heard a Minister refuse to answer a question that was not specifically based on the actual wording of the Oral Question. I hope we do not hear that again. The Government have acted too slowly, too late and with no exit strategy. For example, planning for a phased return should have started from the day schools closed. From those very first deaths, it was clear that extra precautions should have been taken to protect BAME staff. Will the Government not do what the Minister says and wait until this is all over to admit their mistakes, but look at them now so that they can learn the lessons and take the right decisions in future, rather than pretending that nothing went wrong in the past?

My Lords, the noble Baroness does not characterise correctly even what I said in reply to the last question. I said that we must learn as we go. Lessons are being learned. Indeed, yesterday, there was the remarkable news of a drug that would help in therapeutics. That is a piece of learning. Actions are adapted as learning progresses. However, I repeat that any inquiry into past events is best conducted ex post facto, not while the crisis is continuing; learning, yes, recrimination, no.