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Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies - Science and Technology Committee Contents


6  Scientific advice and emergency response

134. In an emergency where scientific or technical advice is required to aid the emergency response, the Government may decide that a Scientific Advisory Group in Emergencies (SAGE) is required; this decision can either be made by the Lead Government Department (LGD) or the Cabinet Office in consultation with the Government Office for Science.[148] SAGE is usually chaired by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA)—the volcanic ash SAGE was chaired by the GCSA—or a departmental representative. Co-chairing can occur; for example, the swine flu SAGE was co-chaired by the GCSA and the Chair of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Advisory Committee (SPI), Sir Gordon Duff. Secretariat support is usually provided by the LGD, the Devolved Administration (DA), the Cabinet Office or GO Science.[149]

135. Each SAGE is emergency-specific. The swine flu pandemic was the first emergency where the SAGE mechanism was used; volcanic ash was the second. The main role of a SAGE is to ensure that there is a sufficient evidence base for decision making and to provide timely and coordinated advice. Because a SAGE acts as the main channel for scientific advice to Government in an emergency, this chapter mainly focuses on the two SAGEs in question.

Principles and codes of practices

136. Over the last two decades there have been great shifts in the way that Government treats scientific advice and as a result, several codes and principles have evolved. In this section, we set out some of the key principles and codes of practice governing scientific advice in general, before exploring how the situation changes in an emergency.

137. The Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis in 1996 marked a significant turning point in the treatment of scientific advice. Following the outbreak, an independent inquiry was set up in 1998 to "establish and review the history of the emergence and identification of BSE [...] and of the action taken in response to it up to 20 March 1996; to reach conclusions on the adequacy of that response, taking into account the state of knowledge at the time".[150] This inquiry was led by Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers and thus became known as the Phillips inquiry. Published in 2000, it identified a wide range of lessons to be learned on the use of scientific advisory committees, the commissioning and coordination of research and the communication of risk to the public (some key recommendations are covered in paragraph 112).[151]

138. In 1997, the then Government Chief Scientific Adviser (Lord May) published Guidelines on the Use of Scientific Advice in Policy-Making; these have subsequently been revised, most recently in June 2010. The Guidelines "address how scientific and engineering advice should be sought and applied to enhance the ability of government policy makers to make better informed decisions".[152]

139. The relationship between Government and independent scientific advisers has at times been fraught with difficulties; the most recent clash being the 2009 dismissal of Professor David Nutt, Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), by the Home Secretary. Following concerns raised by the scientific community and our predecessor Committee,[153] the Government developed the Principles of Scientific Advice to Government, which "set out the rules of engagement between Government and those who provide independent scientific and engineering advice." The Principles apply to "Ministers and Government departments, all members of Scientific Advisory Committees and Councils [...] and other independent scientific and engineering advice to Government."[154] They detail principles related to roles and responsibilities, independence and transparency and openness. [155]

140. The key guidance applying to the operation of scientific advisory committees (SACs) advising Government is the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees (CoPSAC, or the Code). During the time of our inquiry GO Science was in the process of updating the Code; the most recent version having been produced in 2007. In addition, SACs may adhere to their own individual codes of practice. The 2007 version of the Code includes the following guidelines of relevance to our inquiry.

  • Scientific advisory committees should operate from a presumption of openness. The proceedings of the committee should be as open as is compatible with the requirements of confidentiality. The committee should maintain high levels of transparency during routine business.
  • To ensure openness and transparency scientific advisory committees should seek to keep the public and stakeholders informed as they develop advice.
  • The secretariat should ensure that the proceedings of the scientific advisory committee are properly documented so that there is a clear audit trail showing how the committee reached its decisions.
  • The scientific advisory committee should develop procedures for handling confidential information, and communicate it to third parties, so that those submitting it know what to expect. Decisions on confidentiality should be exercised consistently with Freedom of Information legislation. Scientific advisory committees should be prepared to explain publicly why information is being withheld. Much information, which is confidential, may be sensitive for a relatively short time. When making decisions to withhold information, consideration should be given to whether the documents could be released as soon as the sensitivity has passed and, if so, a future publication date should be determined accordingly.
  • In order to provide timely advice to Ministers, scientific advisory committees should keep under review potential future threats, opportunities and key developments in their particular areas of responsibility which may also lead to revision of previous advice. Scientific advisory committees may wish to draw on or contribute to available horizon scanning resources in their parent departments when considering options for change in the remit, delivery or risk analysis for their committee.
  • Scientific advisory committees should aim at having a transparent and structured framework to examine, debate and explain the nature of the risk. It is for committees to decide what form their risk assessments should take [...] Where a committee is asked to provide risk management options, it will normally be helpful for it to follow a formal structure based on recognised principles of risk assessment.[156]

Of particular pertinence to urgent situations such as emergencies, the Code states:

  • A scientific advisory committee's advice should be in writing, and should be seen as independent of government. Where a situation is urgent, oral advice may have to be given but should be followed up by written confirmation of the advice.
  • Where the nature of its work may demand a rapid response, the scientific advisory committee should agree any special procedures to be used for producing urgent advice where it has not been possible to go through the normal channels.[157]

141. We wished to establish whether a SAGE was required to adhere to the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees. We therefore asked Professor David Harper, Chief Scientist for the Department of Health (DH), whether any codes of practice specified how SAGE should act and he responded:

there are codes of practice produced. Well, there are guidelines, principles and a code of practice which in fact has just been refreshed [...] These codes of practice and guidelines go back some way. I think the guidelines that have just been refreshed were published in 2007, and they are guidelines and codes of practice that are there to allow the framework to be created to preserve the independence of advice, which is very important given some of the changes that we are seeing currently in terms of our advisory non-departmental public bodies. So there are codes of practice and there is guidance there.[158]

142. When asked a similar question, the GCSA also failed to provide the clarity we sought.[159] It remains unclear to us whether the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees applies to SAGE and we seek clarification on this issue.

143. Notwithstanding the uncertainty, we have proceeded to examine SAGE's operation on the basis that the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees and the Principles of Scientific Advice to Government apply. The Government also helpfully shared with us the previously unpublished Code of Conduct and Guidance for dealing with the media given to SAGE members during the volcanic ash emergency.[160]

SAGE membership

IDENTIFYING MEMBERS

144. The Department of Health's Communicating about risks to public health: pointers to good practice makes the following point:

A common pattern of failure is of able decision-makers (and their advisers) becoming fixed on a particular set of assumptions. In the case of scientific assumptions, clues as to which assumptions to vary can be found by looking critically at the "pedigree" of key evidence—how it was generated and by whom. But sometimes even the highest pedigree assumptions turn out to be mistaken, and there is often a need to look at non-orthodox views. The argument is not that all views should somehow be accorded equal weight. Despite the attractions of a romantic view of science, most dissident views remain just that. But that should not stop one asking "what if the accepted view is mistaken?"[161]

145. SAGE is essentially a group of experts, supported by a secretariat, brought together to advise Government. The membership of each SAGE is specific to the emergency and the process of identifying and appointing members was of interest to us. According to the Government, when identifying SAGE members:

Pre-existing scientific groups and networks will be utilised, where they exist and have appropriate expertise. Where existing groups do not exist, the GCSA or relevant officials would identify appropriate experts in consultation with National Academies, Learned Societies and other relevant professional organisations and institutions.[162]

146. As mentioned, the swine flu SAGE drew heavily upon the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Advisory Committee (SPI), with 16 of the 20 SAGE members having served on the SPI, including the SPI Chair and SAGE co-chair, Sir Gordon Duff.[163] The SPI, however, had 37 members, which meant that over half of its members did not serve on SAGE. While a membership of 20 may have meant SAGE was less cumbersome, it raises the question of whether the full range of appropriate expertise was represented on SAGE. Professor Neil Ferguson, Director of the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling, who was a member of both advisory groups told us that SPI was:

a huge committee, I think it's 40-50 people, and has a huge range of expertise, all the way from the social sciences, through to virology, clinicians and, indeed, modellers. Clearly, in an emergency that is an impractical size of committee to operate. You need something which is smaller and more agile. I don't know precisely what process was used, but basically the people with most expertise to give and most prior experience of being involved in emergencies or responding to things were engaged in the SAGE group, and it still had a breadth of expertise from social scientists to clinicians, representatives from the NHS and modellers. It was really quite a balanced committee.[164]

147. Dr Justin McCracken, Chief Executive of the Health Protection Agency, considered that:

we were fortunate, the Government was fortunate, in the sense that there already was a Scientific Advisory Committee on Pandemic Influenza and it was, therefore, able, quite easily [...] to identify relevant experts to form a scientific advisory group.[165]

148. Professor Sheila Bird, former Vice-President of the Royal Statistical Society and member of SPI, raised a concern about the membership of SAGE:

there was a gap because there was not a statistician member of SAGE. The information, the consensus statements and so on, which went to SAGE, which are now in the public domain, show that percentages, be they fatality rates or whatever, were quoted in those summary documents without there being an annex which summarised the basic data that underlay those estimates. [...] If a professional statistician cannot appraise the precision of a percentage without knowing either its denominator or the standard error, then neither can anybody else.[166]

149. Dame Deirdre Hine noted in the independent review of the UK response to swine flu pandemic that she had:

reflected at length on whether SAGE should contain a broader range of scientific disciplines to help it tackle a future pandemic outbreak. I have concluded that SAGE had a good range of expertise, although the emphasis on modelling [...] reduced the opportunity for a full contribution by other disciplines.[167]

She subsequently recommended that:

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser and the Department of Health should ensure that there is an appropriate balance of contribution in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies for future pandemic outbreaks.[168]

150. The process by which members for the swine flu SAGE were identified seems clear to us, and we consider that it was fortunate that the Government was able to draw upon the expertise of the SPI. The need for SAGE to be smaller and more agile is understandable, although we emphasise that the GCSA and DH must be vigilant in ensuring an appropriate balance of expertise in future. We have concerns about the lack of a statistician on SAGE although it is our understanding that SAGE was informed by a wide range of sources, including the SPI's sub-groups, the HPA, Devolved Administrations and the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC).[169] We ask the Department of Health to clarify how the gap caused by the lack of a statistician on the swine flu SAGE was addressed.

151. While we were able to find details of the members of SAGE for swine flu fairly easily on the DH website, it was more difficult to identify the members of the volcanic ash SAGE. Several SAGE members had identified themselves as such in the written evidence they provided to us; but we did not have the full picture as no details had been published online or provided in the Government's written submission. In the end we requested the information from GO Science and were provided with a list of members to be kept in confidence. Further into our inquiry we became aware that the volcanic ash SAGE had set up sub-groups and we requested details of the sub-group members too. While GO Science was willing to provide the information when asked, we were puzzled that information on SAGE members had not been published, given that the emergency had been over for several months and members of the swine flu SAGE had been published.[170] We queried this with the GCSA, who stated:

I am aware of no reason why we couldn't publish the list of members. I think it is just that we haven't. I don't think there is anything remotely sinister in that. It is just that the SAGE operations were much quicker, because the volcanic ash was there, and then it was gone. It was all working with limited resources.[171]

152. The GCSA added that "particular circumstances might mean that there would be some individuals it would not be appropriate to name".[172] Although it may not be appropriate to name some members, we see no reason why the membership of SAGE should be kept wholly secret for civil emergencies. In line with the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, which states that SACs should operate from a presumption of openness, we recommend that SAGE members and their declarations of interest are published once initial membership has been established.

153. It appears that there were concerns amongst scientists and engineers over the transparency of the appointment process for volcanic ash SAGE members. Professor Bill McGuire, Co-director of the University College London Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction, who identified himself as a member of SAGE, commented that "the nature of the invitation process was not clear".[173] Given the lack of a risk assessment and contingency planning for this particular emergency, we assume that the appointment process must have been reactive. Dr Sue Loughlin, SAGE member, confirmed this view and told us:

Unfortunately, because of the lack of preparedness, SAGE didn't meet earlier [...] but when it did meet [...] it had a very good representation of expertise. The key issues were addressed, pointed out very quickly, discussed and debated. I would have liked to see even more people involved, but through time all additional people whose expertise was required were brought in.

[...] On a slightly less positive point of view, as time went on, SAGE became slightly less focused but, again, I think that was partly because of the lack of planning in the first case, but the first few meetings certainly were very, very good. It would be good if, for future situations, there is a SAGE plan in advance so that it is already made up before the next situation happens.[174]

154. Time is of the essence in an emergency and the pressure to identify and appoint SAGE members quickly could lead to an initial lack of balance. An additional difficulty in the case of volcanic ash could have been that, unlike with pandemic influenza, there was no obvious existing SAC to draw membership from; there cannot be a ready-made SAC for every potential emergency that could hit the UK. While an initial lack of balance on SAGE can be later addressed through the addition of members or formation of sub-groups, we consider that it would be desirable to strike a suitable balance of expertise from the start. The first step is to ensure that key experts are identified through the NRA process. We conclude that, if risks and Lead Government Departments can be identified in advance, the Government could also pinpoint possible expert advisers who may be called upon to provide advice in the event of an emergency.

155. We recommend that GO Science, working with Departments, develops and maintains a directory of scientific experts who can be called upon in emergencies. The directory should include information on expertise area, current security clearance and previous experience advising Government. We anticipate that focus should be placed on the risks identified in the NRA, although not exclusively. We conclude that having a SAC for risk assessment in the Cabinet Office, as we recommended above, could also assist GO Science in identifying members for this directory.

INTERNATIONAL EXPERTISE

156. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is the UK's specialist aviation regulator, with specific responsibilities for air safety and airspace regulation.[175] During the volcanic ash emergency, the CAA brought international experts together "to find a solution that would help to open up airspace in Northern Europe that was affected by ash".[176] The CAA told us that:

This group comprised representatives from regulators (e.g. the American Federal Aviation Administration, Transport Canada, and [European Aviation Safety Agency]), engine and aircraft manufacturers (including Airbus, Boeing, General Electric and Rolls-Royce), airlines (including British Airways), air traffic service providers, meteorologists, volcanologists, and geologists. In all, approximately 100 people from over 60 organisations participated in the work.[177]

157. The CAA drew on multinational expertise. In contrast, all the SAGE members and most of the sub-group members were UK-based. We note that the British Geological Survey and UK Met Office, both of which were represented on SAGE, liaised with the Icelandic authorities and scientists.[178] International sharing of scientific data and expertise will often be pivotal to the resolution of an emergency. We recommend that the GCSA clarify how he ensures that SAGEs draw on international expertise and what formal role SAGE members may play in this.

REIMBURSING MEMBERS

158. SAGE members are not remunerated for their time. The difficulties of serving on expert committees such as SAGE were brought home to us most effectively by Dr Peter Holden, BMA, who said that during the swine flu pandemic:

The workload on [expert committees] was utterly phenomenal and we were all still trying to do our day jobs. This only ended just in time before some people would have broken. I'm afraid the Government has got to understand that if it wants these senior people to work on these committees, at a much earlier stage they have to be relieved of their routine duties.[179]

159. We asked the GCSA if he believed that SAGE members should be financially compensated for their contributions and he stated:

it depends a little bit how long it goes on. Many of the people who joined the volcanic ash SAGE were making a personal sacrifice. Some of them were consultants, others worked for universities and others worked for research councils.[...] I don't know the answer and I think it will depend on the circumstance. For example, the SAGE for swine flu lasted for a very substantial period of time—a matter of many months. In that situation, if we are looking for an independent person to do it, some degree of compensation is going to have to be appropriate. Where it lasts for two or three weeks, it is less of a problem.[180]

160. This is a difficult issue to resolve. Financial compensation of SAGE members may compromise their independence, or, equally as important, their perceived independence from Government. This could damage public trust. On the other hand, the immense pressure put on SAGE members, who contribute their time freely, should be recognised. The Code of Practice for SACs states that "sponsoring departments are responsible for determining whether remuneration should be paid to members of scientific advisory committees and the level at which any remuneration is set".[181] The Government needs to have a clear policy on remuneration as this cannot be left to the discretion of LGDs when an emergency is unfolding. We recommend that GO Science and the Cabinet Office develop an appropriate remuneration policy for future SAGE members by September 2011. We recommend that they also consider whether compensating SAGE members' employers would be appropriate.

Operation of SAGE

TRANSPARENCY AND OPENNESS

161. As we have already outlined, SACs are normally expected to operate under a presumption of disclosure. Emergencies present extenuating circumstances, however, and the Code of Conduct given to volcanic ash SAGE members stated that:

discussions and advice provided by SAGE will remain confidential whilst SAGE is operational. However, information may be released later under the government's principles of freedom of information.[182]

162. Redacted minutes of the SAGE meetings on swine flu were published on the DH's website in September 2010, following a Freedom of Information (FoI) request.[183] Referring to the volcanic ash SAGE, Dr Guy Gratton, Royal Aeronautical Society, explained on 3 November 2010 that:

What was very hard to understand, particularly from outside SAGE, is why the organisation was treated with such secrecy. The composition of SAGE was never published and the minutes from the meetings were never available. So for anybody who sat outside of SAGE, and there were a great many people very intimately involved with the problem, it became extremely hard to feed into SAGE and to use it to contact other organisations affected by the volcanic ash problem purely because of the level of secrecy with regard to its construction.[184]

163. In December 2010, after we had finished taking oral evidence for this inquiry, minutes of the four volcanic ash SAGE meetings were published on GO Science's website.[185]

164. During the course of our inquiry, we found it difficult to source information on the volcanic ash SAGE. More worryingly, it appears that the secrecy of SAGE's membership and operations posed a barrier to external scientists who wanted to contribute but were left outside the loop. Dr Loughlin, Head of Volcanology at the British Geological Survey, who served on SAGE, told us that:

There was a lot of information discussed in SAGE which was not, for any reason, secret. It was about the way volcanoes work, the way meteorology works. All of this information should have been shared as widely as possible, as quickly as possible.[186]

165. It is important that the existence of SAGE and how it can be accessed is made known during an emergency so that those with alternative, credible scientific views can contribute. Such input would need to be screened and evaluated, but that would be part of SAGE's challenge function.

166. Given that minutes of SAGE meetings and papers produced by SAGE may not be published until after an emergency, the single portal of information we recommended in the previous chapter, for use during an emergency, would not be the most appropriate home for details of SAGE. We consider that the Government Office for Science website should be the first port of call for information on every SAGE. We recommend that if GO Science provides the secretariat, details of members and minutes of meetings should be published on the GO Science website. If information on a SAGE is best sourced through the LGD, we consider that GO Science's website should link to the relevant Departmental webpage. It should be clear from GO Science's website where information on the SAGE is published, and how the secretariat can be contacted.

167. Although we accept that there are circumstances where a SAGE should operate in confidence, we see no reason why, after the emergency, minutes of meetings should only be released in response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request. We recommend that all SAGE meeting minutes and other documents which would be made public following a FoI request are published immediately, in full or redacted form as appropriate.

168. The need to ensure transparency of scientific advice to the greatest possible extent should not be put aside even in an emergency. We are concerned that the SAGE mechanism operates under a presumption of secrecy rather than transparency and openness, and this was particularly and unnecessarily so during the volcanic ash emergency.

Engaging with the media

169. The Principles of scientific advice to Government state that "any requirement for independent advisers to sign non-disclosure agreements, for example for reasons of national security, should be publicly acknowledged and regularly reviewed".[187] Volcanic ash SAGE members were required to sign non-disclosure agreements.[188] We received written evidence from the Science Media Centre (SMC) which considered that:

Government advisers must be free to brief the media (and therefore the public) as well as the Governmentduring previous crises some of the best independent scientists were quickly appointed to advise government by serving on SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) committees. While some in government have assured the SMC that this does not disqualify these experts from briefing the media, that has not been made clear enough to those experts, many of whom have stopped speaking to journalists as a result of their appointment as an adviser. The SMC believes government must proactively encourage these scientists to continue briefing the media. [...]

Some scientists sitting on these committees felt intimidated by being warned about the Official Secrets Act or asked to sign Confidentiality Clauses, which could serve not only to dissuade them from engaging with the media, but also from giving advice to Government in future.[189]

170. We have evaluated the guidance on dealing with the media that was provided to SAGE members, and believe that it is reasonable; it makes clear that SAGE members are free to talk to the media about their work as experts in their own right, excluding information on SAGE confidential discussions.[190] Notwithstanding the guidance, Dr Loughlin told us that with respect to confidentiality "there was some confusion amongst SAGE members about what they could discuss and what they couldn't".[191]

171. Another reason why engaging with the media may have been difficult was that scientific experts were under great pressure to deal with the emergency. For example, Dr Gratton explained:

With regard to putting information out to the whole community, however you define "community", one thing was very evident. This was a huge problem. It involved an awful lot of people and virtually all of those people were working 18 or 20-hour days trying to solve it. That left very little capacity for anybody to then go out and start explaining to the media, to politicians like yourselves, to everybody else, what we were doing.[192]

172. As experts in the scientific issues of an emergency, SAGE members have an exceptional value as public communicators. We recommend that SAGE and its secretariat have a responsibility to identify and support SAGE members willing to communicate scientific issues to the public during an emergency. We further recommend that the GCSA and GO Science, in consultation with Cabinet Office and external centres of expertise such as the Science Media Centre, develop suitable protocols, procedures and guidance for SAGE members.

INDEPENDENCE

173. A key feature of Scientific Advisory Committees (SACs) is their independence from Government. This is essential for trust in the scientific advice provided to Government. The Royal Statistical Society raised a question about the independence of the swine flu SAGE:

the [Scientific Pandemic Influenza Advisory Committee] SPI was, in effect, stood down on 4 May 2009 and did not meet thereafter until 10 September 2010. Formerly SPI subcommittees worked to SAGE but their remit as a subcommittee of an independent scientific advisory committee was, in effect, in abeyance.[193]

174. On the issue of SAGE's independence from Government, Sir Gordon Duff, Chair of SPI and co-Chair of SAGE, explained his view that the independence of SAGE had been safeguarded:

The transition from what we call SPI, which was the preparedness committee, to SAGE, which was the wartime real committee for the pandemic, was done in a way where the independent academic voice, the independent scientific challenge, was retained, so SPI had three sub groups. One was called Modelling, which you probably know about; one was called Clinical Countermeasures, and the third was called Behaviour and Communication. Those sub groups were actually used by SAGE going forwards.

The fact that I, as an independent, became co-chair of SAGE retains the challenge function. The challenge function is understood to be important but we also understand it to be only in the appreciation and interpretation of the scientific evidence. There is a distinction between that and its interpretation or translation into policy. So when it comes to challenging the scientific data and how it is being interpreted, I think SAGE had a very good and independent role in that and maintained that role throughout.[194]

175. While we do not doubt Sir Gordon Duff's independence from Government in his role as SAGE co-chair, it is still not clear to us how independence of the swine flu SAGE as a whole was maintained, particularly as it included Government officials. It is difficult to evaluate the independence of scientific advice when the operation of SAGE is confidential.

176. We have stated previously that the ability to draw upon an existing SAC to form the swine flu SAGE was helpful. However, it must be made clear how SAGE retains a SAC's level of independence from Government. We conclude that clarifying a code of conduct and publishing the names of members of future SAGEs, with their declarations of interest, could only be useful in this respect.

OTHER SOURCES OF ADVICE TO GOVERNMENT

177. SAGE is intended to act as a channel for scientific advice to COBR in an emergency. In order to do this, SAGE receives information from different sources and experts outside of the committee. However, in the cases of both swine flu pandemic and volcanic ash, we found that there was uncertainty on the weight given to advice from SAGE compared to other sources of advice to Government.

178. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is an independent expert advisory committee that advises ministers on matters relating to the provision of vaccination and immunisation services. It comprises 17 members.[195] During the swine flu pandemic, JCVI advice on vaccines was not given directly to ministers but was routed via SAGE for endorsement, with the JCVI chair attending SAGE discussions about vaccination.[196] When considering the role of scientific advice, the Hine Review found that "there was frustration that advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) was channelled through SAGE before presentation to ministers". It concluded that:

the [JCVI] should report directly to the central emergency meetings in a future pandemic, although [SAGE] should be used at the appropriate time to provide its challenge function. This should be clarified in a revised COBR Response Guide for Pandemic Influenza by summer 2011.[197]

We sought the views of the then Secretary of State for Health, Rt Hon Andy Burnham MP, who told us that he "wouldn't overplay the role of SAGE" because:

the JCVI probably were more important in terms of specific advice on treatment options. SAGE were often providing a broad context and information in which to make the decisions. They were providing specific advice, although [...] there was a split opinion around antivirals. You must remember that in the health context the JCVI has a crucial role in advising on vaccination and vaccination priority.[198]

SAGE was still considered to have some weight however; when asked about the impact of SAGE's advice, Sir Gordon Duff told us:

My impression was that the scientific advice was taken extremely openly and given a lot of weight. I never heard a lack of response to the scientific advice. I'm not entirely sure that there was ever a time when the scientific advice was rejected.[199]

179. We agree that SAGE provides a useful challenge function for scientific advice to Government. We also agree with the Hine review that SAGE's challenge function "should not delay ministers from receiving timely advice on vaccination".[200] However, we consider that there would be difficulties in having JCVI and SAGE report to COBR separately; advice may be conflicting or uncoordinated and therefore we offer a proposal for future coordination of scientific advice. While there will be scientific advice to Government from sources other than SACs, we see benefits in coordinating advice from SPI and JCVI for future pandemics. Given that the SPI advisory committee was effectively drawn upon to form the basis of SAGE membership, we consider that a future pandemic influenza SAGE should include members of the JCVI (in addition to the JCVI Chair) either as core members of SAGE or a sub-committee. This could speed up the process by which ministers receive advice on vaccination strategies while retaining the crucial challenge function.

180. We heard that during the volcanic ash emergency, the CAA showed leadership despite the LGDs being identified as the Department for Transport and the Foreign Office (for the repatriation of British Nationals stranded abroad). The CAA brought together worldwide expertise and worked with engine manufacturers, airlines and others to develop safety rules and scientific certification with engine manufacturers. This initiative was seen as key to resolving the crisis.[201] The Royal Aeronautical Society stated:

The CAA, with the Met Office and NERC close behind had the clearest understanding of a difficult and complex problem where data and scientific modelling were often uncertain. [...] SAGE clearly had good scientific literacy, but the relative secrecy of its operation was an obvious weakness.[202]

181. We examined further the relationship between SAGE and the CAA after Dr Elgy, Head of Licensing and Training Standards at the CAA, commented that "SAGE was very helpful in validating the work that we had been doing".[203] The CAA wrote to us and clarified that "there was no formal relationship between SAGE and the group of experts that had been assembled by the CAA".[204] The reason for this, according to the CAA, was that, while experts on the CAA group contributed their advice through meetings of SAGE, the timing of the later SAGE meetings (the first SAGE meeting was on 21 April 2009, the day UK airports re-opened) meant "there was no formal link between the two".[205] The CAA explained how SAGE validated their work:

The SAGE meetings identified the problems causing the flight restrictions, and considered what options were available to address them. SAGE came to the view that the issues broadly fell into two areas: 1. How much ash was in the atmosphere and where exactly was it? and 2. How much ash could aircraft and engines safely tolerate?

In focussing on these two areas and the ways in which these issues could be tackled, SAGE confirmed that the work that the CAA had already set in train was targeting the right issues and objectives, thus effectively validating the approach taken by the CAA.[206]

182. It appears that the CAA showed strong leadership in identifying the key issues and sourcing the evidence required to resolve the question of how much ash aircraft and engines could safely tolerate. The view was put to us was that "the crisis was solved by the CAA demonstrating clear leadership and using scientific evidence to derive a workable solution to the problem of closed airspace",[207] and we found little disagreement, However, British Airways disagreed with the CAA's approach—we explore this further in paragraph 218. Because of the CAA's groundwork and the relatively late formation of SAGE during the volcanic ash emergency, it appears that SAGE contributed little to scientific understanding of the key issue: the ash tolerances of engines and aircraft. We question how much additional knowledge SAGE added to enable airspace to be reopened.

183. While we take the view that there is merit in combining the forces of SACs such as SPI and JCVI under a SAGE for future influenza pandemics, we do not consider that the CAA's work on resolving the issue of ash tolerances of engines and aircraft during the volcanic ash emergency could have been carried out as quickly under the umbrella of SAGE, because of SAGE's more limited membership.

184. The SAGE mechanism has been used twice, and is therefore relatively new. We expect the Government to have evaluated the impacts that both SAGEs have had and whether SAGE's ways of working need improvement. We recommend that, in responding to this report, the Government provide us with its evaluation on the effectiveness of both SAGEs.

SECRETARIAT

185. The secretariat for the swine flu pandemic SAGE was provided by the Department of Health. The secretariat has been widely praised.[208] For example, Professor Ferguson told us that "the DH Secretariat for SAGE was truly excellent".[209]

186. The secretariat for the volcanic ash SAGE was more difficult to identify. When we asked Professor Brian Collins, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for Transport (DfT), why minutes of the volcanic ash SAGE meetings had not been published, he answered "there isn't a secretariat in the context of the way this particular SAGE group was put together because of it being led from No. 10 at that particular point in history".[210] When we asked the GCSA about this, he told us that "in terms of the way in which the Secretariat was underpinned, that was done by the Cabinet Office and my own office".[211]

187. We are concerned that there may not have been a secretariat for the volcanic ash SAGE at all times. It was our understanding that the secretariat should be provided either by the LGD, as was the case for the swine flu SAGE, or the Cabinet Office and GO Science if the lead is unclear.[212] The Government should explain who provided the secretariat for the volcanic ash SAGE.

188. Where the LGD is unclear or yet to be identified, we consider that GO Science should by default provide the secretariat to support a SAGE.

CONCLUSIONS ON SAGE

189. We recommend that the GCSA either clarify what guidelines/codes of conduct apply to SAGE or, if no existing ones apply, produce guidelines governing how SAGEs should operate. The guidelines should address independence, transparency, confidentiality and the conduct of members, the Chair and the supporting secretariat. We recommend that the guidelines be published.

Changes to the HPA and JCVI

190. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) plays a major role in supporting the UK preparations for, and response to, an influenza pandemic. It provides independent scientific and public health advice and operational support to the Department of Health, Strategic Health Authorities, the National Health Service, and other organisations. The HPA has specific responsibilities within England and Wales and cooperates closely with sister agencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the event of a pandemic the HPA collates UK surveillance data for the purpose of providing regular updates to DH and the Civil Contingencies Committee (CCC).[213]

191. In October 2010 the Government announced that the HPA would be abolished as a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB), with its functions to be "transferred as part of a new Public Health Service (PHS)".[214] The HPA told us that, while they welcomed the Government's commitment to improve the focus on public health, they were concerned that "there is a risk that [the HPA's] advice will no longer be seen to be independent of Government unless steps are taken to preserve its independence."[215] They explained that:

It is not yet clear how independence of expert evidence based advice will be preserved and accommodated within the PHS. This is critical in terms of retaining credibility and the trust and confidence of the public, health professionals and others working in the field of health protection—locally, nationally and internationally. Clearly if the integrity of advice provision were to be eroded, or perceived to be so, then the impact on our ability to influence, protect and improve public health could be seriously affected (in the absence of a recognisably independent expert source, the public could turn to other, potentially poorly evidence based and unreliable sources of information).[216]

192. In the same announcement, the Government decided that the JCVI will no longer be a NDPB and will be reconstituted as a DH/PHS "committee of experts".[217] The JCVI is an independent scientific advisory committee, and although it has been stated that the Code of Practise for SACs will apply to all SACs whether formal NDPBs or not, we do not know what evaluation has been conducted on the impacts of a potential loss, or perceived loss, of independent scientific advice. Both the HPA and JCVI will play a crucial role in any future influenza pandemic. When we queried the abolition of several SACs with the GCSA in an evidence session on GO Science's Annual Review, he told us:

What I have actually got is a complete assurance that where there has hitherto been [a NDPB]—providing scientific advice, if the terms of reference of that are moved to the Department and you have [...] within particular Departments an advisory committee, those committees will still operate in exactly the way that is determined by the [Code of Practice for SACs][...] and by the principles for underlying scientific advice to Government, which were accepted by the previous Government and have been endorsed by the current Government and, indeed, incorporated in the Ministerial Code. To the extent that those are assurances, I am comfortable.[218]

193. While we are pleased that the GCSA is "comfortable" with the proposed changes, we have heard strong concerns to the contrary. We recommend that the Government sets out how the independent advisory functions of the HPA and JCVI will be maintained. If any function of the HPA or JCVI is cut, we consider that a justification should be published.

Use of Research Council resources

194. On 15 April 2010, during the volcanic ash emergency, a Dornier 228 research aircraft owned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) was diverted from its planned programme and used to provide ash sampling capability for the Met Office, flying daily until 21 April to assess the location and nature of the volcanic emissions. The Dornier 228 was the only aircraft permitted to operate in UK airspace above 2500 feet until 20 April.[219] Research Councils UK (RCUK) informed us in September 2010 that payment of around £1.25 million for the cost of flights, repairs and consequential losses was outstanding from the Government.[220] The Royal Aeronautical Society noted that, because of this situation, there was "a risk that these resources will not be available be in a future emergency".[221]

195. The Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science, told us in December 2010:

I know there is an issue that has arisen on these specific exercises about the exact budgetary funding when NERC finds itself providing resource during the volcanic ash episode. During the crisis itself, it's common sense—people just get on with it. It's true to say that now there are some accounting issues that are still being resolved.[222]

196. Our understanding from informal discussions with NERC is that, to date, a significant part of the original debt is still outstanding. We are concerned that the delayed reimbursement to NERC for use of the Dornier 228 aircraft has damaged trust between the Government and the research community, with the danger that there may be reluctance to make such resources available in future. We recommend that the Met Office, whom NERC supported, and the Department for Transport, the LGD, take responsibility for ensuring that NERC is reimbursed in full immediately.

Security and scientific advice

197. As cyber attacks pose a national security risk, they are a concern within the defence and intelligence communities in the UK. Information tends to be classified within Government and confidential within industry. This could cause difficulties when coordinating with the civil sector. We considered whether, as a result of this potential barrier, academic experts may be deterred from providing scientific advice to Government.

198. There are four main levels of government security clearance: Basic Check, Counter-Terrorist Check (CTC), Security Check (SC) and Developed Vetting (DV). Developed Vetting (DV) is required for civil servants and others with substantial unsupervised access to sensitive Government assets.[223] The DV clearance process takes several months to complete.[224]

199. The security clearance requirements may pose problems for the involvement of independent scientists in the Government's cyber security agenda. Professor Sommer, Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, noted that non-Government academics are relatively unlikely to have been through developed vetting (DV) but may simply be security cleared (SC).[225] Professor Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering at the University of Cambridge, explained that "many of the real experts in academia and industry refuse to get a security clearance, because of the toxic effects on international collaboration, academic publication and the free exchange of information".[226] Professor Sommer explained that restriction on publication is a key concern because it is taken as a "measure of academic excellence and key to further promotion".[227]

200. Professor Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Home Office, did not share these concerns:

I don't personally see security clearance as serious an issue [...] We fund research in a wide range of disciplines across counter-terrorism. That hasn't been a problem in attracting high-quality scientists to engage with us. We have advisory committees where some security clearance may be necessary for membership. Again, this hasn't been a difficulty in getting people to serve on these. [...] I would say that many scientists don't see this as a particular barrier.[228]

201. Dr Mark Welland, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence, gave us an example of how the problem could be overcome: a Blackett Review was carried out on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the Government made it unclassified. Dr Welland considered that Government:

should work in an unclassified way as best and as much as we can, and where we need to pull in that advice we can do so. [...] It was a combination of sensibly classifying material or unclassifying it, and accepting that one tries to engage in an unclassified way, especially with academics, but where there is a good reason [...] to engage in the classified area, then you can get those security clearances.[229]

202. We consider that the Government must actively ensure that requirements for security clearance do not deter academics from providing scientific advice to Government.


148   Ev 95 [Government Office for Science and Cabinet Office] Back

149   Ev 97 [Government Office for Science and Cabinet Office] Back

150   The BSE Inquiry: Findings and conclusions, October 2000 Back

151   As above Back

152   Government Office for Science, The Government Chief Scientific Adviser's Guidelines on the Use of Scientific and Engineering Advice in Policy Making, June 2010 Back

153   Science and Technology Committee, Third Report of Session 2009-10, The Government's review of the principles applying to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government, HC 158-I  Back

154   "Principles of scientific advice to Government", Government Office for Science, www.bis.gov.uk/go-science Back

155   As above Back

156   Government Office for Science, Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, December 2007 Back

157   As above Back

158   Q 45 Back

159   Q 351 Back

160   Ev 108-09 Back

161   Department of Health, Communicating about risks to public health: pointers to good practice, January 1997, p 20 Back

162   Ev 96 Back

163   "SPI members' biographies", Department of Health, 24 September 2009, www.dh.gov.uk; "Declarations of interest by members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies", Department of Health, 8 March 2010, www.dh.gov.uk

 Back

164   Q 20 Back

165   As above Back

166   Q 23 Back

167   Cabinet Office, The 2009 Influenza Pandemic: An independent review of the UK response to the 2009 influenza pandemic, July 2010, para 4.41 Back

168   Cabinet Office, The 2009 Influenza Pandemic: An independent review of the UK response to the 2009 influenza pandemic, July 2010, para 4.41 Back

169   Ev 97 [Government Office for Science and Cabinet Office] Back

170   On 23 May 2010 the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre at the Met Office declared the eruption stopped. Back

171   Q 352 Back

172   Q 353 Back

173   Ev w31 [UCL Institute for Risk] Back

174   Q 93 Back

175   "About the CAA", Civil Aviation Authority, www.caa.co.uk Back

176   Ev 161 [Civil Aviation Authority] Back

177   As above Back

178   Ev 126, para 57 [Research Councils UK] Back

179   Q 21 Back

180   Q 356 Back

181   Government Office for Science, Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, December 2007, para 38 Back

182   Ev 108 [Government Office for Science and Cabinet Office] Back

183   "Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE)", Department of Health, 14 October 2010, www.dh.gov.uk Back

184   Q 94 Back

185   "Civil Contingencies", Government Office for Science, www.bis.gov.uk/go-science Back

186   Q 95 Back

187   "Principles of scientific advice to Government", Government Office for Science, www.bis.gov.uk/go-science Back

188   Qq 133-34 Back

189   Ev w51 and w52 Back

190   Ev 109 [Government Office for Science and Cabinet Office], Annex C Back

191   Q 95 Back

192   Q 120 Back

193   Ev 139 Back

194   Q 45 Back

195   "Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation", Department of Health, www.dh.gov.uk Back

196   Cabinet Office, The 2009 Influenza Pandemic: An independent review of the UK response to the 2009 influenza pandemic, July 2010, para 4.27 Back

197   Cabinet Office, The 2009 Influenza Pandemic: An independent review of the UK response to the 2009 influenza pandemic, July 2010, p 9 Back

198   Q 378 Back

199   Q 47 Back

200   Cabinet Office, The 2009 Influenza Pandemic: An independent review of the UK response to the 2009 influenza pandemic, July 2010, para 4.56 Back

201   Ev w64 [Airport Operators Association], para 13 Back

202   Ev 118, para 23 Back

203   Q 93 Back

204   Ev 161 Back

205   As above Back

206   Ev 161 Back

207   Ev w50 [Manchester Airports Group], para 16 Back

208   Cabinet Office, The 2009 Influenza Pandemic: An independent review of the UK response to the 2009 influenza pandemic, July 2010, para 4.64 Back

209   Q 31 Back

210   Q 130 Back

211   Q 346 Back

212   Ev 96 [Government Office for Science and Cabinet Office] Back

213   Ev 132 [Health Protection Agency] Back

214   Cabinet Office, Public Bodies Reform-Proposals for Change, 14 October 2010, www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk Back

215   Ev 136-37, paras 1 and 10 Back

216   Ev 136, para 4 Back

217   Cabinet Office, Public Bodies Reform-Proposals for Change, 14 October 2010, www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk Back

218   Science and Technology Committee, The Government Office for Science Annual Review 2009, HC (2010-11) 546-i, Q 11 Back

219   Ev 124 [Research Councils UK], para 32 Back

220   Ev 126, para 53 Back

221   Ev 118, para 26  Back

222   Q 404 Back

223   Her Majesty's Government Communications Centre, Developed vetting: your questions answered, www.hmgcc.gov.uk Back

224   "The vetting process", Ministry of Defence, www.mod.uk Back

225   Ev 129, para 12 Back

226   Ev 131 [Foundation for Information Policy Research], para 4 Back

227   Ev 130, para 23 Back

228   Q 310 Back

229   As above Back


 
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