Political accountability is a cornerstone of democracy. Our rulers and their actions are answerable to the people at the ballot box, and to legislators via Parliamentary scrutiny.
But over the last 15 months, a coterie of scientists with no democratic mandate have established themselves as drivers of the government’s Covid strategy. Sage, led by primus inter pares Vallance and his deputy Whitty are the guiding lights in our approach to handling the virus.
The expertise of virologists has doubtless proven essential in formulating public health policy over the course of the pandemic.
But after a year of lockdowns and social distancing, the decision to delay the June 21 unlocking has reignited familiar questions over the appropriateness of government ministers outsourcing such a level of responsibility to unelected experts.
Sage scientists haven’t mounted a coup nor are they operating from Number 10 with a blank cheque. But decision-making behind closed doors has been far from transparent. The seal of approval on policy may ultimately be granted by the Prime Minister or Matt Hancock but it appears, increasingly, that the government has become a rubber stamp for Sage when it comes to managing the risk of Covid.
Some members of Sage in the media have warned that the latest set of lockdown measures are not harsh enough. And although we hear promises from politicians that hope is on the horizon, or that data will come before dates, somehow the musings of scientific advisors always shift from portent to policy.
The rationale behind the latest decision to delay ‘freedom day’ was to “enable more people to be vaccinated and receive second doses”, even though 57 per cent of the adult population now has two doses, including the most vulnerable, and deaths are not rising with higher infection rates.
Many scientific models have also been shown to be inaccurate on some occasions. In October 2020, they put forward outdated death figures to justify a second national lockdown when more recent forecasts at the time predicted far fewer deaths. Unreliable and often exaggerated models used by Sage have also received criticism from NHS chiefs who are ‘sceptical’ that the models are useful forecasts.
Despite the concern over Sage’s predictions, the government still continues to follow their advice even though we may well have reached herd immunity, according to scientists at University College London. Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer, estimated that 60-70 per cent of the population would need to become immune to achieve herd immunity. It’s likely that even by Vallance’s own calculations we’ve reached that milestone which should render any infringement on our liberties unjustifiable.
Covid fanatics, like Professor Susan Michie, a member of the British Communist Party, who sits on a sub-group for the Government’s Sage advisory body, have been given airtime to call for “maximum suppression” of the virus across the globe. Their influence – if not on politicians then on members of the public still fearful of Coronavirus, thanks to the £300m the UK government spent on fearmongering campaigns – is vast and far-reaching.
Even though a large proportion of the population are dismayed by the decision to extend lockdown again, the media has failed to represent these peoples’ grievances. With GB News bursting onto the scene, this may change.
As a recent IEA paper pointed out, economists, who could present the government with a cost-benefit analysis of Sage’s recommendations, have largely been kept out of the discussion.
Parliament has also been side-lined throughout the process, with some Members only hearing and debating policy after it’s either been leaked or announced to the press at presidential style briefings.
This reflects a current – and troubling – trend. Traditional vertical chains of accountability, with decision makers answerable Parliament, are being replaced by horizontal chains, with unelected heads of quangos and committees like Sage bypassing the House of Commons.
Although a public inquiry should allow MPs to scrutinise Sage advice, it will be done in retrospect. Initially, when the entire nation was at panic stations in March 2020, cumbersome Parliamentary procedures would have prevented decisive action.
Now that the dust has settled and we have an effective vaccine against the virus, Parliamentary sovereignty ought to have been reinstated to hold Sage and others to account.
We must also consider whether moving towards a technocratic style of government during emergencies is desirable. If we believe it is, then we must ensure powers are returned once the threat has passed and remind ourselves that some may be reluctant to relinquish it.
It’s down to politicians to escape the clutch of Sage, listen to their advice, but not blindly follow it. Now that we know the vaccines work, wartime planning behind closed doors with unelected committees is unnecessary.