Sage sidelined as Government takes direct control of coronavirus response

They were told by officials that they had been “doing a lot of work”, and they were reducing their sitting hours in order to reduce the burden. Scientists in one group were surprised to be told that they would not be meeting at all during August despite the ongoing pandemic.

The source questioned what the purpose of Sage would be if the committee no longer had access to evidence from sub-groups which they considered before reporting to the Government.

Sage said the working groups would provide advice directly to Government departments and “support them more directly”, but would not directly report to ministers. Sage meetings have already been reduced from twice to once a week, and in future will occur whenever deemed necessary, sources said. 

Professor Susan Michie, who sits on both the behavioural science subcommittee, SPI-B, and on Sage, criticised a lack of transparency over the moves, saying the work of the Joint Biosecurity Centre was “shrouded in secrecy”.

“In order to get trust, it is really important that there is openness, transparency and explanation of the basis on which advice is given,” she told The Telegraph. “We know little about this new body and who is on it.

“Who are the scientists? What are the criteria used for selecting them? What is the governance and accountability?

“There are scientists on Sage who work for universities and are independent, but the new body appears to be a Government command and control operation.”

Prof Michie, a professor of health psychology and director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL, added: “I think that this is circumventing Sage.

“There has been no explanation as to why there is a change in the system – it appears to have been set up without transparency or an explanation of the rationale.”

Sage had itself been widely criticised for lack of transparency at the start of the crisis, and it took months before the membership of the committee was revealed. 

However, the scientific advice behind the Government’s strategy has repeatedly come under scrutiny, with concern that it has left Britain too slow in its response and late to adopt policies such as the use of face coverings. 

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