Government advisers' fury as criticisms blanked out of documents

Scientific advisers accuse Government of ‘Stalinist’ decision to hide criticism of ‘not well thought out’ policies by redacting parts of public documents on lockdown rules

  • Scientists said officials blacked out their independent criticisms of policy
  • The complaints came from SPI-B, an advisory group working with SAGE 
  • SAGE released documents about coronavirus response to be more transparent
  • One SPI-B member said ‘Our greatest asset is trust… you need to be open’ 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Scientists advising the Government on how to handle the coronavirus crisis are furious that their criticisms have been left out of published meeting papers.

Experts working with SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said they were furious and ‘bemused’ that parts of the papers were blacked out when they went public.

The bits left out had been critical of the Government, they said, and had been hidden in a ‘Stalinist’ and ‘bloody silly’ attempt to stop officials from looking bad.

Members of SPI-B – the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours – aired their grievances anonymously to The Guardian.

It comes after SAGE made the unprecedented step this week of publishing some of its work and the names of its members before the pandemic has ended.

Some parts of the documents had been blacked out but others set out some of the advice politicians have been given since the COVID-19 crisis began.

They showed that at least 12 different strains for the virus were thought to be circulating in the UK in March; that scientists believe China was hit considerably harder than its government has let on; and that officials were warned that any ‘immunity certificate’ programme could lead people to infect themselves deliberately so they could return to work.

Some of the SAGE documents released this week included heavily redacted pages, including one on how to relax lockdown measures

One member of SPI-B, Professor Stephen Reicher, said he had been ‘bemused’ by the Government’s decision to redact parts of the SAGE files.

Professor Reicher, a psychologist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, said in a tweet: ‘Personally, I am more bemused than furious.

‘The greatest asset we have in this crisis is the trust and adherence of the public. You want trust? You need to be open with people.

‘This isn’t open. It is reminiscent of Stalinist Russia. Not a good look.’

Boris Johnson’s hardline coronavirus lockdown message has ‘effectively terrorised’ the UK population into believing they will die if they catch coronavirus, one of the government’s experts has said. 

Professor Robert Dingwall suggested Britain had ‘completely lost sight’ of the true nature of the disease because ‘mostly it isn’t’ killing people. 

His comments illustrate the potential problems facing the Prime Minister as he prepares to set out his lockdown exit plan in an address to the nation on Sunday night. 

Polling published yesterday showed almost two thirds of the population are worried about the effects of lifting the draconian curbs too early. 

Some experts are concerned that so-called ‘coronaphobia’ could prove a major barrier to getting the nation back up and running. 

Professor Dingwall, from Nottingham University, sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), which feeds into the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). 

He told The Telegraph: ‘We have this very strong message which has effectively terrorised the population into believing that this is a disease that is going to kill you. And mostly it isn’t.

‘Eighty per cent of the people who get this infection will never need to go near a hospital. The ones who do go to hospital because they are quite seriously ill most of them will come out alive – even those who go into intensive care.’ 

Professor Dingwall said the UK had ‘completely lost sight of that’ because of an ‘obsession’ with the death toll and international comparisons. 

Officials decided to publish the SAGE papers after coming under pressure to be more transparent about their regular claims of being ‘guided by the science’. 

But the decision to blank out parts of the files has produced new accusations of secrecy from the very people who were crucial to making the documents.

SPI-B is an independent group which provides advice to the Government without being paid for it and members are now concerned this move – deciding to hide their criticisms – puts its reputation as unbiased experts at risk.

One member told the Guardian: ‘We weren’t given any advance notice and we still haven’t been given a satisfactory explanation.

‘This government has failed to show any self-criticism whatsoever, when it is glaringly obvious to everybody that big mistakes have been made.

‘If you want the trust of the population you hold up your hand and you say “we’ve made these mistakes, this is why they happened, we regret it, we’re learning from it”.

‘Rather than just keep saying “we’ve done the most fantastic job” and not being open to criticism in any way.’ 

The SPI-B members said their response to lockdown measures proposed by the Government was among the redacted text.

They had said that stricter movement restrictions and more heavy-handed punishments might put people off following lockdown rules, which they might otherwise feel was easier because of ‘a sense of community cooperation’.

Another member told the newspaper: ‘What is recorded in the redacted document is us criticising those proposals. They were just not particularly well thought out.

‘Here we were being independent, and you can’t see it’. 

The Government Office for Science, which represents Whitehall’s advisers, said: ‘The only redactions relate to comments made by a Sage subgroup where specific reference is made to policy still under consideration or to remove contact.’

The secret SAGE files the government DOESN’T want you to see: Advice on wearing masks, stopping flights from specific countries and the impact of school closures among documents STILL not revealed – with mysterious passages missing from others 

A huge swathe of coronavirus documents used by the Government to battle to pandemic have yet to be published to avoid ‘unnecessary confusion’ of the public, the Government claimed today.

Some 16 documents from Special Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) meetings since February were released on Tuesday, May 5, taking the total to 28.

But according to a Government-supplied list it leaves more than 90 that remain secret.

They include advise for ministers on stopping flights from certain countries, on when to stop contact tracing, and another on the impact of school closures.

The list also includes unpublished documents on the use of face masks, the risk of pets passing on the virus, and advice on restricting flights from specific countries.  

These are all highly contentious  issues as the death toll mounts and the Government seeks a way out of the current lockdown. 

Additionally, some of the documents released this week included heavily redacted pages, including one on how to relax lockdown measures. 

But according to a Government-supplied list more than 90 that remain secret after 16 were revealed today

Other secret documents of scientific evidence that helped shape the Government’s response to the crisis were released today. They revealed:

  • Ministers were warned lifting the coronavirus lockdown and then reimposing restrictions later would be seen by the public as a ‘serious failure of policy’;
  • A traffic light system could be used to explain to the public the new rules when lockdown is eased, according to behavioural experts;
  • Scientists urged the government to tell people to stop shaking hands the same day Boris Johnson was boasting about shaking hands with ‘everybody’;
  • Officials were told employers could shun workers who have not had COVID-19 after lockdown, prompting people to actively try to catch the disease.

The issue of school closures was raised at the daily coronavirus press conference tonight with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab saying reopening all schools at once would lead to a ‘very real risk’ of the infection rate rising, creating the possibility of a second peak.

‘The crucial bit for us is the five tests and the risk of a second spike in relation to any new changes that we would make and that must of course included schools,’ he said.

‘We have asked Sage to look at different options, I don’t think it’s binary. 

‘At least to date the evidence has been that we wouldn’t be able to open up all schools without a very real risk that the R rate – the transmission rate – would rise at such a level that we would risk a second spike.

‘We have asked Sage for the options on this and we will, as ever, continue to be guided by the scientific advice we get.’ 

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters today: ‘We will publish all of the evidence in the coming weeks and months. 

‘Some evidence remains under live considerations for policy decisions being made by Government and as such it wouldn’t be appropriate to publish at this time.

‘Releasing policy still under formulation could cause unnecessary confusion for the public at a time when clear guidance is the top priority

‘Other documents that have been considered will be published in organised tranches once they have all the relevant permissions and are OK to be in the public domain.’

The SAGE files: At least 12 different strains of coronavirus were circulating in the UK in March – including one that has only ever been found in Britain, Government-funded study finds 

At least a dozen different strains of coronavirus were spreading through the UK in March, a Government-funded study has found.

Leading genetic scientists analysed the genomes of the killer virus in 260 infected patients from all corners of the UK.

They say they have identified 12 unique lines of the virus, one of which has only ever been found in Britain – meaning it mutated on UK soil.

But the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) said the number of strains ‘is very likely substantially higher’ due to under-sampling in the UK.

The scientists say most of the strains were imported from Italy and Spain, the worst-hit countries in the world at the time the research was carried out.

There is no suggestion that any of the strains are any more potent or infectious than another, infectious disease experts say.

Professor Paul Hunter, at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline it is ‘entirely plausible’ this could happen to one of the strains if it continues to evolve.

The report, made public today, was given to the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) in March to help them map the outbreak’s spread. 

The Sage Files: UK scientists believe that coronavirus cases in China are TEN TIMES higher than claimed – as communist state’s ambassador warns Tory MPs their criticism of the Beijing regime could ‘poison’ relations

China underplayed the scale of the coronavirus outbreak and may have suffered ten times as many cases as it has confirmed, documents released today suggest. 

Documents released today from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) show that UK scientists believed that the number of cases was vastly higher than admitted by Beijing.  

They do not accuse the authoritarian regime of lying but the revelation in Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) minutes released today will fuel claims that China has questions to answer over its handling of the outbreak.

It also suggests that deaths from the outbreak in China could be many times higher than the 4,300 so far admitted to. 

In the US, President Donald Trump is blaming China for covering-up the lethality of coronavirus and colluding with the WHO to let it spread around the world while Beijing saved face. 

Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also say they have seen ‘overwhelming’ evidence that the virus was accidentally leaked from a lab near Wuhan. 

A raft of documents from Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meetings over the past few months on coronavirus were released today.

 

Chinese ambassador in the UK Lui Xiaoming warned Tory MPs critical of his regime that ongoing animosity could ‘poison’ Sino-British relations

It came as the Chinese ambassador in the UK Lui Xiaoming warned Tory MPs critical of his regime that their ongoing animosity could ‘poison’ Sino-British relations.

Speaking in a China-Britain Business Council webinar today, he said: ‘Such talks are a political virus.

‘If they go unchecked they’ll poison UK-China relations and even international solidarity.’

He insisted that the outbreak in his country was ‘under control’. 

Afterwards the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘We have continued to work with all of our international partners including China on the global response to this pandemic. 

‘The First Secretary of State (Dominic Raab) has also talked about the fact that once this response is over there are questions that need to be answered about the origin and the spread of the virus.’

A raft of documents from Sage meetings over the past few months on coronavirus were released today. 

They included a statement from a sub-committee on modelling contagious disease outbreaks on February 3.

The Defence Secretary Ben Wallace yesterday reignited the war of words over whether China suppressed information about the virus

It noted: ‘The number of confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV in China is estimated to be at least 10 times higher than the number currently confirmed.’ 

Downing Street has said China has ‘questions to answer’ over the outbreak and many Try MPs have voiced their own anger.

The Defence Secretary Ben Wallace yesterday reignited the war of words over whether China suppressed information about the virus – whose first cases were reported in Wuhan – which prevented other countries from taking steps to save more lives.

It came as Donald Trump’s US administration scaled up its rhetoric over Chinese culpability, with the president accusing the communist state of a cover-up after making a ‘horrible mistake’.

The SAGE files: Government science experts warned ministers ‘immunity certificates’ mean firms could discriminate against those who haven’t had coronavirus – and desperate workers could TRY to get infected

Employers could shun workers who have not had coronavirus after lockdown, prompting people to actively try to catch the disease, the government’s science experts warned ministers. 

Secret documents prepared by the independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) last month outlined the potential drawbacks of introducing widespread antibody testing and so-called ‘immunity certificates’. 

Such tests would show if someone has had the disease and if they have some degree of immunity with accompanying digital certificates then showing employers the health status of staff.

Antibody tests are viewed as one of the key pieces in the puzzle when it comes to getting the UK back to work. 

But SPI-B, a sub-committee of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said introducing the tests could result in people trying to ‘game’ the system. 

The documents suggest workers who do not have antibodies could be discriminated against, effectively creating two classes of employee, with those who have had the disease prized because of a belief that they will not get ill again. 

Those who are antibody negative could then turn to trying to obtain fake test results or even trying to get ill on purpose to boost their chances of returning to work.

Meanwhile, the documents also warned positive tests could result in people wrongly thinking they no longer need to wash their hands, risking an increase in the transmission of the disease. 

Those who are antibody negative could also be too afraid to leave home and could refuse to return to work, the group said. 

The warnings about antibody testing came as separate documents showed scientists were urging Boris Johnson to tell people to stop shaking hands on the same day that he boasted he was still shaking hands with ‘everybody’. 

Newly-released records on the advice given to the government as the coronavirus crisis erupted show Mr Johnson seemingly flouted the recommendations from his own experts.

A meeting of the behavioural group that feeds into SAGE on March 3 concluded that ‘Government should advise against greetings such as shaking hands and hugging, given existing evidence about the importance of hand hygiene’. 

Boris Johnson, pictured in St James’ Park this morning, was warned by the government’s science experts that antibody testing and ‘immunity certificates’ could have unintended negative consequences

Mr Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock have relied heavily on advice from Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance during the crisis. The four are pictured in Downing Street on March 12

Scientists advised against shaking hands on same day Boris Johnson said he was still shaking hands with ‘everybody’

Scientists were urging Boris Johnson to tell people to stop shaking hands the same day the PM was boasting about shaking hands with ‘everybody’, it was revealed today. 

Newly-released records on the advice given to the government as the coronavirus crisis erupted show Mr Johnson seemingly flouted the recommendations from his own experts.

A meeting of the behavioural group that feeds into SAGE on March 3 concluded that ‘Government should advise against greetings such as shaking hands and hugging, given existing evidence about the importance of hand hygiene’. 

‘A public message against shaking hands has additional value as a signal about the importance of hand hygiene,’ the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) said. 

‘Promoting a replacement greeting or encouraging others to politely decline a proffered hand-shake may have benefit.’

However, that evening Mr Johnson told a press conference in Downing Street that he ‘continued to shake hands’ and the important thing was washing them.   

He said: ‘I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands. 

‘People obviously can make up their own minds but I think the scientific evidence is… our judgement is that washing your hands is the crucial thing.’ 

A mass-produced antibody test which is accurate enough to be rolled out at a national level is yet to be identified by any country in the world. 

But the UK government is hoping for a breakthrough in the near future with the tests viewed as one of the keys to getting Britain back to work. 

Ministers are in talks with tech firms about developing an ‘immunity certificate’ app which would show if someone has been tested and if they have coronavirus antibodies.

The SPI-B committee was tasked with examining the potential negative outcomes of introducing antibody testing. 

Documents written on April 13 and finally published today show such a regime could have devastating unintended consequences.  

The experts warned that ‘some employers may discriminate on the basis of antibody status’.

That could include not allowing people who have tested negative to return to work or only hiring people who are antibody positive. 

The group said that could prompt people to try to cheat the system or to try to catch coronavirus.

The experts wrote: ‘If a test result is a requirement for a resumption of work, a range of strategies to “game” the system may arise. 

‘These include people deliberately seeking out infection or attempting to purchase a fake test result, commercial organisations selling unapproved tests, or approved tests becoming available through private organisations at prices that make them unavailable to most.’

Meanwhile, those workers who have not had coronavirus could be too afraid to go outside, reducing their social contact to unhealthy levels, and some could simply refuse to return to work. 

The group said: ‘It is possible that people told they have not yet had the virus may feel more vulnerable and wish to avoid specific activities at work that pose a risk to their health, or seek to avoid attendance at work entirely.’

The group also expressed major concerns that positive tests could drastically alter people’s behaviour.

Those who have tested positive for antibodies may wrongly ‘believe they have no chance of becoming infected with COVID-19 in the future’. 

That means that if they developed the key symptoms of a cough or fever they may not think they need to self-isolate, increasing the risk of infecting others. 

Experts: More than 12 coronavirus strains were spreading across UK in March

At least a dozen different strains of coronavirus were spreading through the UK in March, a Government-funded study has found.

Leading genetic scientists analysed the genomes of the killer virus in 260 infected patients from all corners of the UK.

They say they have identified 12 unique lines of the virus, one of which has only ever been found in Britain – meaning it mutated on UK soil.

But the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) said the number of strains ‘is very likely substantially higher’ due to under-sampling in the UK.

The scientists say most of the strains were imported from Italy and Spain, the worst-hit countries in the world at the time the research was carried out.

There is no suggestion that any of the strains are any more potent or infectious than another, infectious disease experts say.

People who test positive could also stop washing their hands, the scientists said, which would also boost transmission.  

Scientists are yet to determine with 100 per cent certainty whether people who have had coronavirus have a high level of resistance to the disease. They are also trying to establish whether that immunity could wane over time. But total immunity has already been ruled out.  

The SPI-B group also raised concerns about the accuracy of the tests and the potential for people to be given a false sense of protection. 

For example, if five per cent of tests were actually incorrect then thousands of workers could wrongly believe they are safe from the disease. 

This would have particularly bad consequences if people with positive antibody tests decided to volunteer for high coronavirus exposure jobs, the group said.

‘Some testing “Antibody Positive” may actively volunteer to take on activities at work with high exposure to COVID-19,’ the experts said. 

‘This might include customer-facing roles or tasks within health or social care that involve greater contact with COVID-19 patients. 

‘This would be particularly problematic if the test result was incorrect.’ 

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