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10 Days That Changed Britain: “Heated” Debate Between Scientists Forced Boris Johnson To Act On Coronavirus

Alex Wickham, BuzzFeed

“If you think the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is a cosy consensus of agreeing, you’re very wrong indeed”.

Leon Neal / Getty Images

It was on Wednesday March 11 — 10 days ago — that some of the experts on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies began to realise that the coronavirus was spreading through the UK too fast for the NHS to cope.

Over the next few days, Britain’s leading epidemiologists were embroiled in a series of extremely tense — and until now private — discussions among themselves, with the UK’s chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance, and Boris Johnson’s government over what to do.

There was no consensus. Several of the scientists frantically argued that the UK must immediately introduce social distancing to halt the spread of the virus. Some pleaded with the government to change tack or face dire consequences.

But others continued to believe that introducing social distancing now would be unsustainable for a long period and would lead to a more disastrous second wave of infection.

The days-long debate between the experts themselves and with the government was “heated” and “extremely difficult”, multiple sources familiar with the discussions told BuzzFeed News. Vallance admitted as much at a health select committee hearing this week: “If you think SAGE is a cosy consensus of agreeing, you’re very wrong indeed”.

The extent of the disagreement between the nation’s top scientists and the government can be revealed at the end of one of the most extraordinary weeks in modern British history.

As chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled an unprecedented package of state intervention in the economy, and Johnson enforced the closure of pubs, restaurants, theatres and gyms, it also emerged that: Ministers have criticised the prime minister’s senior aides for “outsourcing” leadership on coronavirus to a small group of experts; Downing Street is still considering a partial lockdown of London in the coming weeks; and cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill introduced a series of new Whitehall structures after concerns that the government was acting too slowly on both its health advice and its economic response.

While the scientific debate was raging last week between experts, officials and ministers in face-to-face meetings and over emails and text messages, Johnson’s government was publicly insisting that the scientific advice showed the UK did not yet have to bring in more stringent measures to fight the virus.

Political aides tacitly criticised other countries who had taken more dramatic steps, claiming Britain was being “guided by the science” rather than politics.

Towards the end of last week, some ministers and political aides at the top of the government were still arguing that the original strategy of home isolation of suspect cases — but no real restrictions on wider society — was correct, despite almost every other European country taking a much tougher approach, and increasing alarm among SAGE experts. […]

While the crisis that Johnson faces is undoubtedly unprecedented, there is significant criticism of Number 10’s handling of the situation across the government and the Conservative Party.

Chief among them is the view — expressed by several ministers and Tory MPs to BuzzFeed News over the last few days — that Johnson and his chief aide Dominic Cummings have effectively “outsourced” the government’s decision-making process to Vallance, the chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and a small team of scientific advisers.

While Downing Street’s deference to the experts won plaudits early on, this approach has turned out to be lacking, the ministers and MPs said, because the scientists themselves disagreed on what to do. One minister said that it was then the political responsibility of Johnson and Number 10 to decide which scientists to back, but described a “vacuum of leadership” among aides.

The minister told BuzzFeed News that Cummings and Vallance were “close allies” and claimed the government had “bet” the future of the UK on advice from a very small group of scientists that for a long time differed from the wider international consensus, and other members of SAGE.

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