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

Conclusions and recommendations

Lead Government Departments (LGDs)

1.  We consider that, more important than having a list of pre-identified LGDs, it is essential to have a flexible and fast mechanism to ensure that the most appropriate LGD is appointed. One of the Cabinet Office's first tasks in an emergency should be to review whether the pre-identified choice is most appropriate. During a long-running crisis where the emergency evolves and the focus of the response may change (for example, from the initial response to recovery phase), COBR should review the lead periodically. (Paragraph 38)

2.  We recommend that, in responding to this report, the Cabinet Office clarify how it makes the decision to appoint the first LGD if one has not been pre-identified. (Paragraph 39)

3.  We recommend that a LGD/LGDs for a space weather emergency be identified alongside the publication of the 2011 National Risk Register. (Paragraph 42)

Risk assessment

4.  We are surprised and concerned that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) had no direct involvement with the National Risk Assessment (NRA) process until recently. In addition, we are concerned that the GCSA's oral evidence appears to be at odds with the Government on an issue that is a matter of fact—either GO Science and the GCSA are involved with the NRA process or they are not. We consider that science should be at the heart of the NRA process and ask the Government and the GCSA to clarify this matter. (Paragraph 54)

5.  Severe weather is already included as a risk on the National Risk Register. We are disappointed that it appears, from the Secretary of State for Transport's comments, that the GCSA had little or no input to the risk assessments that must have taken place on severe weather. (Paragraph 55)

6.  The Government Office for Science, working with the Cabinet Office, should be involved at all stages in the NRA. We recommend that the GCSA should be formally involved in the NRA process at a high level. The NRA should not be signed off until the GCSA is satisfied that all risks requiring scientific input and judgements have been properly considered. (Paragraph 56)

7.  We recommend that the Government Office for Science, while remaining a semi-autonomous body, be located within the Cabinet Office. (Paragraph 61)

8.  We recommend that the Government clarify why no review of the risk of disruption to aviation caused by a natural disaster, including volcanic eruptions, was undertaken in 2009; and provide the evidence behind the decision. (Paragraph 65)

9.  It appears that there may have been a breakdown of communication between the earth sciences community and Government. We recommend that the GCSA assess whether this was the case and improve the mechanisms by which scientists can engage with the Cabinet Office. (Paragraph 66)

10.  We are pleased that the Government is assessing the risks posed by space weather ahead of the next solar maximum. This is vital given that the Government believes the National Grid could be at risk. The Government should take all possible action to put in place and coordinate resilience measures across different sectors. (Paragraph 69)

11.  We are disappointed that the GCSA has little involvement with the Domestic Horizon Scanning Committee in the Cabinet Office. We recommend that GO Science and the GCSA consider ways of assessing the quality of the Domestic Horizon Scanning Committee's work. (Paragraph 71)

12.  We recommend that, in replying to this report, the GCSA clarify why SAPER was abolished and to what extent its functions, particularly in planning for emergencies, have been retained and by whom. (Paragraph 73)

13.  We consider that the NRA would benefit from more scientific scrutiny. We recommend that a new independent scientific advisory committee be set up to advise the Cabinet Office on risk assessment. This committee should review the NRA, setting up temporary sub-committees as appropriate. Having an independent scientific advisory committee for risk assessment to review the NRA would improve public and parliamentary confidence in a necessarily unpublished document. The committee should inform the judgement of the GCSA in ensuring that all risks requiring scientific input and judgements have been properly considered in the NRA and support his greater involvement with the Domestic Horizon Scanning Committee. (Paragraph 74)

Reasonable worst case scenario

14.  We are concerned that the word "reasonable" appears to be influenced by the need to find a reasonable level of public expenditure for contingency planning rather than outlining the worst scenario that might realistically happen, based on the best available evidence. (Paragraph 87)

15.  We welcome the fact that the GCSA is reviewing the concept of a reasonable worst case scenario. We request that, if possible, the results of this review are sent to us and published before any policy change is adopted. (Paragraph 88)

The National Risk Assessment and Register

16.  We conclude that it should be clear what criteria are used in developing risk comparisons, particularly when they cut across Government Departmental responsibilities. We recommend that the Government clarify the common methodology and scale for assessing the likelihood of risks that are used in developing the NRA and NRR. (Paragraph 95)

17.  We are concerned that the development of the NRA and NRR appears to be a "top-down" process hindering the involvement and influence of local authorities. This situation is unsatisfactory. We recommend that the Cabinet Office review its procedures to ensure that the input of local authorities is given full consideration and appropriate weight. (Paragraph 97)

18.  If it is the case that access to the NRR alone is insufficient to allow local authorities to assess the potential impacts of risks to local areas, and access to the classified NRA is necessary, then we question the operational value of the NRR. We recommend that the Government conduct a consultation with Category 1 emergency responders, including local authorities, to evaluate how useful the information on the NRR is for risk assessment and emergency planning. (Paragraph 98)

19.  We recommend that the Government review whether those with appropriate security clearance outside of Central Government have difficulties accessing the NRA, and put in measures to resolve the problem. (Paragraph 99)

Behavioural Sciences

20.  We are disappointed at the lack of focus on social and behavioural sciences in Government to date. We expect the newly established Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight team to provide input to risk assessment for emergencies. (Paragraph 108)

21.  We would like to know whether and when a Government Chief Social Scientist will be appointed to replace Professor Wiles. (Paragraph 109)

Conclusions on risk assessment

22.  Risk assessment underpins preparedness. In turn, risk assessment should be underpinned by the best available evidence. We were very disappointed to learn that the GCSA has had little involvement with what is a cross-Government process. It appears that, for both the volcanic ash emergency and the recent severe winter weather, the GCSA had been asked to provide advice after the emergency had happened, although we note with interest that the severe winter weather was not deemed an emergency. This is simply not good enough: scientific advice and evidence should be integrated into risk assessment from the start. (Paragraph 110)


23.  If, following the GCSA's Blackett Review, the concept of a reasonable worst case scenario is retained, we recommend that the Government must make continual efforts to establish the concept of "most probable scenarios" with the public. While the Government should be open about the worst case scenarios being used by emergency responders, it should use the experience of the 2009 pandemic to emphasise the range and likelihood of various possibilities. While we do not expect this to remove all the problems associated with communicating risk and uncertainty, we consider that it may provide the public with a better sense of the likely risks. (Paragraph 123)

24.  We recommend that there should be a single portal of information for every emergency, along the lines of in the USA. This should be of use to members of the public as well as emergency responders and should be the primary source of all information, linking to other websites as necessary. We consider that maintaining this portal should be the responsibility of the Lead Government Department, and should be located within its departmental website. (Paragraph 128)

Seasonal influenza

25.  Although the Government response to seasonal flu goes beyond our inquiry, we were interested in the ongoing public concern over the risks of swine flu as part of the seasonal flu outbreak. This is unsurprising, given the fresh public memory of the pandemic and the Government's 2009-10 pandemic communication programme, as well as the absence of a seasonal flu information campaign in 2010-11. The Government should carefully consider the public's assumptions about swine flu (or any new flu strain) when communicating the risks of that strain in the context of seasonal, rather than pandemic, outbreak. (Paragraph 132)

26.  We recommend that the JCVI conduct a comprehensive review of the benefits and risks of extending influenza vaccination programmes to all children under five, drawing on the experiences of countries, such as the USA, that already have policies of vaccinating under fives. (Paragraph 133)

Scientific Advisory Group in Emergencies (SAGE): code of practice

27.  It remains unclear to us whether the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees applies to SAGE and we seek clarification on this issue. (Paragraph 142)

SAGE: membership

28.  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. (Paragraph 150)

29.  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. (Paragraph 152)

30.  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. (Paragraph 154)

31.  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. (Paragraph 155)

32.  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. (Paragraph 157)

33.  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. (Paragraph 160)

SAGE: transparency and openness

34.  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. (Paragraph 165)

35.  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. (Paragraph 166)

36.  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. (Paragraph 167)

37.  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. (Paragraph 168)

38.  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. (Paragraph 172)

SAGE: independence

39.  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. (Paragraph 175)

40.  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. (Paragraph 176)

SAGE and other sources of scientific advice

41.  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. (Paragraph 179)

42.  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. (Paragraph 182)

43.  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. (Paragraph 183)

44.  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. (Paragraph 184)

SAGE: secretariat

45.  The Government should explain who provided the secretariat for the volcanic ash SAGE. (Paragraph 187)

46.  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. (Paragraph 188)

SAGE: conclusions

47.  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. (Paragraph 189)

Changes to the Health Protection Agency and Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation

48.  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. (Paragraph 193)

Use of Research Council resources

49.  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. (Paragraph 196)

Security and scientific advice

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

Office of Cyber Security and Information Assurance

51.  In its response to this report, we recommend that the Government clarify the powers and funding of the Office for Cyber Security and Information Assurance. (Paragraph 210)

Space Situational Awareness

52.  We recommend that the Government review the need for the UK to increase its participation in, and contributions to, ESA's Space Situational Awareness programme, following the outcome of the 2011 National Risk Assessment. (Paragraph 216)

Regulations on flying through volcanic ash

53.  We are concerned that, when asked why the UK was unprepared for volcanic ash disruption, the former Secretary of State for Transport chose both to distance himself from, and to pass responsibility to, the CAA, a body for which he had ministerial oversight. This is unsatisfactory. (Paragraph 222)

54.  We conclude that it is essential that the Department for Transport and the CAA sustain the ability, in the face of any new hazard, to access the full range of science, engineering, operating and regulatory resources necessary to determine whether existing regulations are adequate and appropriate. (Paragraph 223)

55.  We do not agree that the closure of airspace imposed unreasonable restrictions upon operators. Given the uncertainties involved and the lack of prior risk assessment, it was necessary to take a precautionary approach until aircraft and engines tolerances to ash had been identified. We expect that, if a similar situation occurred in future, the UK would be better prepared to conduct analyses and make decisions on an appropriate emergency response. However, the Government will need to resolve the following three policy and process issues: (i) the CAA's contribution to EASA's decision-making processes; (ii) the suitability of the Met Office's computer predictions and (iii) the involvement of airline operators in decision-making. (Paragraph 224)

International data sharing during the swine flu pandemic

56.  We conclude that there needs to be a better mechanism of data-sharing, particularly sharing of raw epidemiological data. We recommend that the UK, as a member state of the WHO, propose the formation of an international working group under the WHO to discuss how to share effectively epidemiological data between countries in the run-up to a new pandemic. (Paragraph 228)


57.  We are concerned that the Government's attitude to scientific advice is that it is something to reach for once an emergency happens, not a key factor for consideration from the start of the process. We conclude that scientific advice and an evidence-based approach must be better integrated into risk assessment and policy processes early on. (Paragraph 229)

58.  We do not accept that SAGEs should be given a carte blanche to operate however they please just because an emergency is occurring. We conclude that the Government Office for Science should take responsibility for ensuring that all future SAGEs operate in a more organised, transparent and accessible manner and adhere to a published code (existing or new). (Paragraph 230)

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