SAGE, governance & the Cummings debacle

Liz Stanley

Those following UK political developments in government handling of the coronavirus pandemic will be aware of a high-level advisory body partly composed of senior politicians at ministerial level and partly by ‘experts‘ of various kinds, called SAGE. The initials stand for Scientific Advisory Group for Emergences, with different incarnations of SAGE membership constituted around different emergences since first established as a mechanism within the framework of governance. SAGE most often comes to public attention through its main committee being invoked in political discourse as the source of the expert scientific guidance about the best courses of action to follow in containing and ‘fighting‘ the coronavirus that the government receives and through which it describes itself as ‘following the science‘ or even ‘driven by the science’.

SAGE is usually mentioned just in passing in comment about government policy, with the details of what it is and does rarely mentioned. It exists in a taken for granted way as part of the apparatus of governance. But a closer look indicates some interesting things. Basic information about its composition and formal activities can be found on the UK government website here. It is described as a body that “provides scientific and technical advice to support government decision-makers“, with its two leading members names that often appear in press conferences and media reports: Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and Professor Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser from the Department of Health and Social Care. It has 53 other members, listed complete with titles and their formal honours, as are Vallance and Whitty, plus two who requested anonymity. The indications are, then, that SAGE’s role is to provide informed advice; and political decision-making, if not separate of this, is not in the position of either ‘following‘ or being ‘driven by‘ the scientific and technical advice provided.

More detail is also given on a link from the main page on the coronavirus and SAGE, and can be accessed here. Its opening statement is worth considering:

“The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is responsible for providing Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) meetings with coherent, coordinated advice and to interpret complex or uncertain scientific evidence in non-technical language.
Typically, SAGE meets in advance of COBR and the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) subsequently represents SAGE at COBR. SAGE provides COBR with science advice at the UK level.
In relation to COVID-19, SAGE brings together expertise from across the scientific spectrum, including epidemiologists, clinicians, therapeutics and vaccine expertise, public health experts, virologists, environmental scientists, data scientists, mathematical modellers and statisticians, genomic experts, and behavioural and social scientists who feed analysis, research and data into SAGE.
SAGE’s role is to provide unified scientific advice on all the key issues, based on the body of scientific evidence presented by its expert participants. This includes everything from latest knowledge of the virus to modelling the disease course, understanding the clinical picture, and effects of and compliance with interventions. This advice together with a descriptor of uncertainties is then passed onto government ministers. The advice is used by Ministers to allow them to make decisions and inform the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The government, naturally, also considers a range of other evidence including economic, social, and broader environmental factors when making its decisions.”

Some useful pointers can be drawn from this about the role of SAGE, and which throw interesting light on governmental claims that it follows or is driven by ‘the science’:

• SAGE through its key team member advises COBR, so it exists at a high level within the structures of governance.
• It is multidisciplinary and has membership across the sciences, humanities and social sciences.
• It provides unified advice, which given the size and constitution of its membership implies reaching a broad consensus.
• This advice is ‘passed on‘ to government, which ministers use together with other advice.
• Government also considers other sources of evidence in making decisions.

There appears something of a divorce between government pronouncements about following or being driven by scientific evidence, and the formal role of SAGE and its sub-groups, which is to reach a broad consensus of opinion and pass this on in a framework in which government draws on a range of sources. The question arises as to whether custom and practice differs and there is ‘following’, although recent events suggest otherwise when political expediency dictates, something returned to below.

Among other questions that arise is, where are the social scientists located within this? That is, the statement in the quotation above indicates that social scientists are there, but where, and who are they in disciplinary or interdisciplinary terms?

Going through the list of those on the main SAGE committee and exploring the qualifications and positions of its non-governmental members indicates that the clear majority are not social scientists but include epidemiologists, medics, mathematicians and modellers. The most familiar name in social science terms is that of Ian Diamond, the UK’s National Statistician in the Office for National Statistics, and formerly head of the ESRC. There are, however, important sub-groups. The same more detailed document quoted from above states:

“In a highly complex crisis such as COVID-19, a lot of work is done by sub-groups and de-facto sub-groups – covering for instance epidemiological modelling, clinical questions and behavioural science. For COVID-19 SAGE has two main subgroups:
• Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) (40-45 Participants)
• Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behavioural Science (SPI-B) (18 participants)”

Clearly the sub-group on modelling is much larger (40+ v. 18), which could be taken as an indication of perceived importance, and there are ‘de facto’ advisory groups as well, which the document provides some more information about. Turning attention to the Behavioural Science sub-group and its members suggests the majority are economists and psychologists of different kinds with at least one ethics specialist. However, it appears no sociologists or anthropologists of relevant specialisms are involved.

This is not to question the relevance of the disciplines and people involved, simply to point out there are notable omissions. Perhaps sociology and anthropology are seen as the ‘soft’ end of the social sciences and absent because of this, but it is impossible not to be shocked about what is excluded. In the case of sociology (and leaving anthropology to fight its own corner), there is highly relevant specialist sociological knowledge that could have been represented, concerning such things as crowds and disasters, social movements in relation to large-scale social events and changes, comparative and historical work on pandemics and epidemics, and narrative inquiries regarding how people behave in exceptional circumstances. And this doesn’t even mention appropriate contributions from risk sociology, sociological work on sustainability and environment, and ‘the biggy’ of medical sociology.

But it seems that social scientists of any persuasion will be social scientists and act accordingly. Thus commentary and debate around the debacle concerning Boris Johnson’s political advisor Dominic Cummings and his ‘one lockdown rule for me and another for the rest‘ has led to at least three members of the SAGE Behavioural Science sub-group breaking silence to specify the advice given, and accepted by government. Among other things, this advice focused on how to ensure trust in government-instituted lockdown rules.

This advice was that trust in UK pandemic governance requires that lockdown and the related rules instituted must apply to all, there should be no special exemptions, no ‘us and them’, and this is key in controlling the virus and ensuing deaths. There was clearly the assumption this had been accepted by government and would be followed. It is now clear the advice, seemingly fully accepted, was subsequently ignored by Cummings as a senior advisor deciding, a prime minister accepting, and senior ministers supporting, that special circumstances applied to him.

As present circumstances indicate, political expediency trumps expert advice. And ironically it also trumps the trust in good faith about trust that sub-group members had seemingly assumed, from comments by those who have spoken about the Cummings matter. Will more of the sub-group speak out? Or will hope of further placements hold their tongues? And what of pandemic governance from now on? The latter is clearly the key question. Will the fallout – which as of late morning on 26 May includes resignation of a junior minister – continue and increase, or will the gamble that people’s anger at being treated as stupid will subside pay off?

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Liz Stanley

Liz Stanley is Professor of Sociology @ University of Edinburgh, email liz.stanley@ed.ac.uk. I’m a feminist sociologist who works on everyday documents of life, particularly letters, to research social change over time.

One thought on “SAGE, governance & the Cummings debacle”

  1. A PS to this. Firstly, Cummings was defended to the hilt by the Prime Minister and senior ministers, in a context in which he was widely, indeed almost universally, seen as a liar and a cheat. This led to much commentary of a ‘what has he got on Boris Johnson?’ kind. Secondly, quite a number more members of Sage have in a quiet way broken ranks to make concerned commentary about the speed and extensiveness of lifting lockdown restrictions and the likelihood of further large coronavirus outbreaks. But they have done so in their own names rather than as members of the Sage committee. Whatever else, it is patently obvious that there is no being ‘driven by the science’ on the part of government.

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