COVID-19 policy in the UK: The role of SAGE and science advice to government

This post is part 2 of COVID-19 policy in the UK: Did the UK Government ‘follow the science’? Reflections on SAGE meetings

The issue of science advice to government, and the role of SAGE in particular, became unusually high profile in the UK, particularly in relation to four factors:

  1. Ministers described ‘following the science’ to project a certain form of authority and control.
  2. The SAGE minutes and papers – including a record of SAGE members and attendees – were initially unpublished, in line with the previous convention of government to publish after, rather than during, a crisis.

‘SAGE is keen to make the modelling and other inputs underpinning its advice available to the public and fellow scientists’ (13.3.20: 1)

When it agrees to publish SAGE papers/ documents, it stresses: ‘It is important to demonstrate the uncertainties scientists have faced, how understanding of Covid-19 has developed over time, and the science behind the advice at each stage’ (16.3.20: 2)

‘SAGE discussed plans to release the academic models underpinning SAGE and SPI-M discussions and judgements. Modellers agreed that code would become public but emphasised that the effort to do this immediately would distract from other analyses. It was agreed that code should become public as soon as practical, and SPI-M would return to SAGE with a proposal on how this would be achieved. ACTION: SPI-M to advise on how to make public the source code for academic models, working with relevant partners’ (18.3.20: 2).

SAGE welcomes releasing names of SAGE participants (if willing) and notes role of Ian Boyd as ‘independent challenge function’ (28.4.20: 1)

SAGE also describes the need for a better system to allow SAGE participants to function effectively and with proper support (given the immense pressure/ strain on their time and mental health) (7.5.20: 1)

  1. There were growing concerns that ministers would blame their advisers for poor choices (compare Freedman and Snowdon) or at least use science advice as ‘an insurance policy’, and
  2. There was some debate about the appropriateness of Dominic Cummings (Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s special adviser) attending some meetings.

Therefore, its official description reflects its initial role plus a degree of clarification on the role of science advice mechanisms during the COVID-19 pandemic. The SAGE webpage on the sites describes its role as:

provides scientific and technical advice to support government decision makers during emergencies … SAGE is responsible for ensuring that timely and coordinated scientific advice is made available to decision makers to support UK cross-government decisions in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR). The advice provided by SAGE does not represent official government policy’.

Its more detailed explainer describes:

‘SAGE’s role is to provide unified scientific advice on all the key issues, based on the body of scientific evidence presented by its expert participants. This includes everything from latest knowledge of the virus to modelling the disease course, understanding the clinical picture, and effects of and compliance with interventions. This advice together with a descriptor of uncertainties is then passed onto government ministers. The advice is used by Ministers to allow them to make decisions and inform the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak …

The government, naturally, also considers a range of other evidence including economic, social, and broader environmental factors when making its decisions…

SAGE is comprised of leading lights in their representative fields from across the worlds of academia and practice. They do not operate under government instruction and expert participation changes for each meeting, based on the expertise needed to address the crisis the country is faced with …

SAGE is also attended by official representatives from relevant parts of government. There are roughly 20 such officials involved in each meeting and they do not frequently contribute to discussions, but can play an important role in highlighting considerations such as key questions or concerns for policymakers that science needs to help answer or understanding Civil Service structures. They may also ask for clarification on a scientific point’ (emphasis added by yours truly).

Note that the number of participants can be around 60 people, which is more like an assembly with presentations and a modest amount of discussion, than a decision-making function (the Zoom meeting on 4.6.20 lists 76 participants). Even a Cabinet meeting is about 20 and that is too much for coherent discussion/ action (hence separate, smaller, committees).

Further, each set of now-published minutes contains an ‘addendum’ to clarify its operation. For example, its first minutes in 2020 seek to clarify the role of participants. Note that the participants change somewhat at each meeting (see the full list of members/ attendees), and some names are redacted. Dominic Cummings’ name only appears (I think) on 5.3.20, 14.4.20, and two meetings on 1.5.20 (although, as Freedman notes, ‘his colleague Ben Warner was a more regular presence’).

SAGE minutes 1 addendum 22.1.20

More importantly, the minutes from late February begin to distinguish between three types of potential science advice:

  1. to describe the size of the problem (e.g. surveillance of cases and trends, estimating a reasonable worst case scenario)
  2. to estimate the relative impact of many possible interventions (e.g. restrictions on travel, school closures, self-isolation, household quarantine, and social distancing measures)
  3. to recommend the level and timing of state action to achieve compliance in relation to those interventions.

SAGE focused primarily on roles 1 and 2, arguing against role 3 on the basis that state intervention is a political choice to be taken by ministers. Ministers are responsible for weighing up the potential public health benefits of each measure in relation to their social and economic costs (see also: The relationship between science, science advice, and policy).

Example 1: setting boundaries between advice and strategy

  • ‘It is a political decision to consider whether it is preferable to enact stricter measures at first, lifting them gradually as required, or to start with fewer measures and add further measures if required. Surveillance data streams will allow real-time monitoring of epidemic growth rates and thus allow approximate evaluation of the impact of whatever package of interventions is implemented’ (Meeting paper 26.2.20b: 1)

This example highlights a limitation in performing role 2 to inform 3: SAGE would not be able to compare the relative impact of measures without knowing their level of imposition and its impact on compliance. Further, the way in which it addressed this problem is crucial to our interpretation and evaluation of the timing and substance of the UK government’s response.

In short, it simultaneously assumed away and maintained attention to this problem by stating:

  • ‘The measures outlined below assume high levels of compliance over long periods of time. This may be unachievable in the UK population’ (26.2.20b: 1).
  • ‘advice on interventions should be based on what the NHS needs and what modelling of those interventions suggests, not on the (limited) evidence on whether the public will comply with the interventions in sufficient numbers and over time’ (16.3.20: 1)

The assumption of high compliance reduces the need for SAGE to make distinctions between terms such as mitigation versus suppression (see also: Confusion about the language of intervention and stages of intervention). However, it contributes to confusion within wider debates on UK action (see Theme 1. The language of intervention).

Example 2: setting boundaries between advice and value judgements

  • ‘SAGE has not provided a recommendation of which interventions, or package of interventions, that Government may choose to apply. Any decision must consider the impacts these interventions may have on society, on individuals, the workforce and businesses, and the operation of Government and public services’ (Meeting paper 4.3.20a: 1).

To all intents and purposes, SAGE is noting that governments need to make value-based choices to:

  1. Weigh up the costs and benefits of any action (as described by Layard et al, with reference to wellbeing measures and the assumed price of a life), and
  2. Decide whose wellbeing, and lives, matter the most (because any action or inaction will have unequal consequences across a population).

In other words, policy analysis is one part evidence and one part value judgement. Both elements are contested in different ways, and different questions inform political choices (e.g. whose knowledge counts versus whose wellbeing counts?).

[see also:

  • ‘Determining a tolerable level of risk from imported cases requires consideration of a number of non-science factors and is a policy question’ (28.4.20: 3)
  • ‘SAGE reemphasises that its own focus should always be on providing clear scientific advice to government and the principles behind that advice’ (7.5.20: 1)]

Future reflections

Any future inquiry will be heavily contested, since policy learning and evaluation are political acts (and the best way to gather and use evidence during a pandemic is highly contested).  Still, hopefully, it will promote reflection on how, in practice, governments and advisory bodies negotiate the blurry boundary between scientific advice and political choice when they are so interdependent and rely so heavily on judgement in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty (or ‘radical uncertainty’). I discuss this issue in the next post, which highlights the ways in which UK ministers relied on SAGE (and advisers) to define the policy problem.

The full list of SAGE posts:

COVID-19 policy in the UK: yes, the UK Government did ‘follow the science’

Did the UK Government ‘follow the science’? Reflections on SAGE meetings

The role of SAGE and science advice to government

The overall narrative underpinning SAGE advice and UK government policy

SAGE meetings from January-June 2020

SAGE Theme 1. The language of intervention

SAGE Theme 2. Limited capacity for testing, forecasting, and challenging assumptions

SAGE Theme 3. Communicating to the public

COVID-19 policy in the UK: Table 2: Summary of SAGE minutes, January-June 2020


Filed under COVID-19, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, Public health, public policy, UK politics and policy

6 responses to “COVID-19 policy in the UK: The role of SAGE and science advice to government

  1. Pingback: COVID-19 policy in the UK: Table 2: Summary of SAGE minutes, January-June 2020 | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: COVID-19 policy in the UK: SAGE Theme 3. Communicating to the public | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  3. Pingback: COVID-19 policy in the UK: SAGE Theme 2. Limited capacity for testing, forecasting, and challenging assumptions | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  4. Pingback: COVID-19 policy in the UK: SAGE Theme 1. The language of intervention | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  5. Pingback: COVID-19 policy in the UK: SAGE meetings from January-June 2020 | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  6. Pingback: COVID-19 policy in the UK: Did the UK Government ‘follow the science’? Reflections on SAGE meetings | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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