Originally published on Substack on 21 November 2023

As the Covid Inquiry continues, we have heard evidence from the former Chief Scientific Adviser. He was questioned on his Almost-But-Not-Quite contemporaneous diary entries that are displayed as excerpts. But this raises questions about the role of science and scientists.

Following the Science?

The government was very keen to portray their response to Covid as ‘following the science’, and I have covered this in the discussion on the evidence given by civil servants working in and near Number 10.

But most of the scientists working for SAGE and within its subgroups are independent, or at least are described as such. It’s worth saying at the outset that the Chief Scientific Adviser and members of SAGE were working extremely hard in good faith to produce the best evidence they could to feed into the convoluted advisory process that led to Boris Johnson and, in theory, the Cabinet.

And the government’s ‘Following the Science’ mantra put huge pressure on those scientists.

Take Nobody’s Word For It

The motto of the Royal Society is, roughly translated, ‘Take Nobody’s Word For It’, the idea being :

“It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.”

While the scientific advice was tested, and bundled up into consensus statements, the evidence provided to scientists from government was in some cases, shall we say, of dubious provenance. Maybe advisors will in future look for evidence of the government’s operational plans rather than relying on political answers on operational readiness.

“It Is All About Handling The Scientists”

The Inquiry was shown an extract from Patrick Vallance’s diaries, purporting to be a quote from the then Chancellor, Rishi Sunak

“It is all about handling the scientists, not handling the virus”


It is emblematic of the quote that was a mainstay of government response in the latter stages of the pandemic: “I see nothing in the data”. If data is deliberately not shown to ministers, or ministers choose not to see it, then they (in theory) protect themselves from what the data shows: evidence-based policy unfortunately drifts into policy-based evidence.

Keeping In One’s Own Lane

In the early stages of the pandemic, there was no such thing as an individual that was an expert in all aspects of Covid. That is still the case. The scientific response to Covid was truly interdisciplinary. One curious piece of evidence was that produced in the Inquiry (helpfully underlined for added emphasis:

“[Patrick Vallance] highlighted that this wasn’t helpful, and said that no one should be speaking to the media”


One argument is that there should be one, consensus view of the scientific advice presented to ministers, and ministers should be responsible for their decisions. However, this was somewhat diluted by the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser flanking the Prime Minister and adding an air of scientific legitimacy where there perhaps wasn’t.

Patrick Vallance clarified the comment in the quote above, saying that scientists advising government were free to talk to the media about their expertise.

But there is a role for independent scientists, indeed an ethical imperative for scientists, to highlight an issue which could lead to significant unnecessary suffering.

And it’s worth bearing in mind that there is a spectrum between scientists and politicians: some scientists are political and some politicians are scientific.

Communicating the Science

One of the missed opportunities has been that the press conferences, which gripped the nation on occasion, were not used to better communicate the science and models that were the basis of scientific advice. Of course, not everyone wants to learn about the virus, but ministers and Prime Ministers had a duty to be open to learning about the virus which was to change the course of people’s lives for many months and years.

BBC Interview

Here is my BBC interview covering these and other points.

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