Boris Johnson parted ways with his top coronavirus scientists


His chief medical officer poured a bucket of very cold water on Monday evening on his latest plans to fight a worrying resumption in the spread of the coronavirus in the UK. And on Tuesday, he faced further criticism after it emerged that his group of high-level science advisers three weeks ago recommended a set of measures significantly more stringent than they currently are.

Johnson, it seems, is trapped by his bitterly divided Conservative Party – facing hawks, like his Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, who wants to keep the economy as open as possible and doves, who think tough measures now. would be better. longer term.

His attempts to walk that delicate line were evident at a press conference Monday night. Instead of introducing a short and precise “circuit breaker” lockout, advocated by experts who want to immediately interrupt the current transmission rate and save the country time before a harsh winter, Johnson described a three-level system of measurements lock, to be applied locally depending on the number of cases reported in a given area.

Even the top level of these new restrictions is a far cry from the tight lockdown Johnson introduced in March. Children will still be in school, restaurants can stay open and it will be up to local authorities to decide whether other parts of the hospitality industry should close.It was immediately clear that some of Johnson’s top scientific and medical advisers weren’t convinced. Next to the Prime Minister stood his chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, who said he was “not convinced” that even the restrictions currently being considered for the highest level “would be enough to contain” the spread of the virus.

Hours later, a revealing cache of documents was posted online – the minutes of a recent meeting of the UK government’s group of top science advisers, the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE).

Records show that SAGE agreed at its September 21 meeting that a “package of interventions will need to be adopted to avoid this exponential increase in cases,” including a “circuit breaker to reduce incidence to low levels; Tips for working from home for anyone who can; Prohibit all contact at home; Closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gymnasiums and personal services. ”

Yet the Prime Minister seems to have granted SAGE only one wish: the day after that meeting, he advised people to work from home when possible.

Robert Dingwall, a social science professor at Nottingham Trent University who sits on a panel that advises SAGE, believes some of the group’s recommendations have not been taken into account by the government because “they were based on theoretical assumptions , rather than empirical evidence, ”adding that this“ reflects the lack of investment in research in social behavioral science in relation to drugs and vaccines ”.

All of these arguments between politics and science will eventually become public knowledge when the UK’s response to the coronavirus is considered in the inevitable public inquiry, at some point in the future.

And whatever the merit of protecting the economy in the long run, creating the perception that you’re ignoring scientific advice could be dangerous, if the virus rioted and the already massive UK death toll rose further.

As Simon Clarke, associate professor of microbiology at the University of Reading, says: “Politicians have to work their way through this situation. The more they seem to be fighting with their best science advisers, the more responsibility they take for the worst public health failures during the country’s worst health crisis in a century. “


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