‘It’s not my job to tell the Government things they want to hear’: Sir Patrick Vallance

In a warning shot for restrictions coming back this winter, Sir Patrick said faster, harder and broader action must be taken ‘at a time when it doesn’t look particularly worrying’ 

Ministers shouldn’t have said they were being ‘led by the science’ throughout the Covid pandemic, Sir Patrick Vallance has said.  

No10’s chief scientific adviser claimed science doesn’t decide nor does it ‘lead the way’, insisting that there were other complex matters that needed to be factored in for crucial decisions.

He said No10 should have stuck to the phrase ‘informed by science’, rather than implying they were ‘slavishly following’ evidence ‘because science doesn’t have all the answers to these things’.

In his first in-depth interview since the virus hit the UK, he also said he doesn’t ‘sugar coat’ information for the Government.

Sir Patrick, who became a household name during the course of the pandemic due to his frequent appearances at daily televised press briefings in Downing St, said he views his job as ‘giving scientific advice, like it or not, to the Prime Minister and Cabinet to enable them to make decisions’.

And he revealed that his mantra has always been to act early when adopting lockdown restrictions to thwart the spread of coronavirus.

In a warning shot for restrictions coming back this winter, Sir Patrick said faster, harder and broader action must be taken ‘at a time when it doesn’t look particularly worrying’. 

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser (centre), pictured with Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) and England's Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty (left)

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser (centre), pictured with Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) and England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty (left)

Sir Patrick reveals Chris Whitty’s influence helped him through the darkest days

Sir Patrick Vallance said his friendship with England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty helped him through the darkest days of the pandemic.

Asked in an interview with Radio 4 whether he ever felt tempted to resign from his role, he said it was ‘very helpful’ to be able to speak to Professor Whitty.

Sir Patrick said: ‘Well, I think all of us felt times when there was enormous pressure and you just felt, “am I doing a good job? Am I the right person in the job at the moment? Am I able to get the evidence through clearly enough or not?”

‘And I think that’s a normal feeling, a normal reaction.

‘It’s very helpful for me personally that Chris and I were together on this, that we were able to speak to each other and reinforce each other.’

England’s top scientist said he also had concerns about whether his message was being understood.

He added: ‘It’s not enough as a science advisor to say I went in there and I told them. 

‘It’s “have I done enough?” And “have I assured myself that this has been properly understood?”

‘And that is really important and there were times and all of us felt like that.’ 

Asked on BBC Radio 4 whether there was conflict when sharing information with the Government, Sir Patrick said: ‘My job is not to sugar coat it. My job is not to tell them things they want to hear… 

‘It’s to make sure that they understand what the science at that moment is saying, what the uncertainties are, and to try to make that as clear as possible.’

And discussing another surge of cases or the emergence of a concerning variant, he said leaders have to go sooner, harder and stronger than they want to.

He said: ‘My mantra for a long time during this [pandemic] has been “you’ve got to go sooner than you want to in terms of taking interventions, you’ve got to go harder than you want to, and you’ve got to go more geographically broad than you want to”.

‘And that is the SAGE advice. And that’s what I’ve been saying. 

‘And I will say it going forward and the Prime Minister knows that’s what I think. 

‘And he knows that’s what I would do in that situation.

‘You have to act that at a time when it doesn’t look particularly worrying.’ 

Discussing whether it was a difficult time last September when the Government eased restrictions when experts were expecting a second wave in the winter, he said none of the decisions ministers make are easy and they all have consequences. 

He said: ‘We can look back and see exactly what consequences lockdowns have on health and wellbeing and so on. So these are not easy things to do.

‘I think the biggest challenge for politicians across the world – and I know this from speaking to colleagues in other countries – is the exponential curve. 

‘When numbers are low and they just appear to be trickling up a bit, it sort of seems okay.

‘But you know an exponential curve, a doubling is a doubling and doubling.

‘I think there is a very interesting difference between being able to grasp an exponential curve intellectually and being able to actually internalise it in some sort of intuitive way.

‘And I think you know it was that sort of need to understand that as cases started doubling – this was a real warning sign.’

Sir Patrick criticises Indy SAGE for straying into policy instead of science

Sir Patrick Vallance also criticised an independent panel of experts for choosing to stray into policy, instead of sticking with the science.

Top scientists set up a committee last May to advise the Government on the pandemic. 

Former chief scientific advisor Sir David King founded the group, called Independent SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies).

The experts came together over concerns about a ‘lack of transparency’ from SAGE.

Asked about the group, Sir Patrick said ‘it was actually not helpful to call it Independent SAGE’.

He added: ‘David called me a few times about wanting to set up a group to try and give other looks at things. 

‘And I said to him I thought that was a good idea to set up a group to have other scientists, because you know at that stage, and at all stages, you need as much scientific input as you can. 

‘I did say to him, don’t call it SAGE because that’s just going to cause confusion, which he said he wouldn’t, but anyway they did. 

‘And I think… it’s helpful to have science input. 

‘It’s less helpful when that strays over into policy recommendations, and I think it’s important that the science groups that are set up stick with science. 

‘And don’t try and mix the two things because policy is really a decision which has massive political and other inputs to it, and I think it’s important the science is the science.’

Professor Vallance added: ‘The expression of science, and the delivery of science into policymakers needs to be free from politics. 

‘And it needs to be there for people to be able to challenge it. 

‘And it’s important, therefore, that as the scientific evidence is pulled together and articulated, it doesn’t stray over into policy recommendations for that very reason… 

‘And I don’t think it’s not helpful when you end up with policy being dressed up as science. It’s very confusing for people.’

The full interview will air on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on Tuesday October 12 as part of the station’s ‘Day of the Scientist’.

Asked whether he was happy with Boris Johnson’s description that No10’s decision-making was ‘led by science’ or ‘following the science’, Sir Patrick said: ‘Well, I think I’ve been clear about that. 

‘And I will be again here… I think science informs. It doesn’t decide, and it doesn’t lead the way.

‘So it’s a key part of the input to decision making and it’s very important that the decisions are informed by science, so I think informed by science is the right way to describe this. 

‘Rather than sort of slavishly following, not least because science doesn’t have all the answers to these things. 

‘And of course, you know there are many other parts that need to come into these very complex decision making processes.’

Responding to whether Winston Churchill’s phrase that ‘scientists should be on tap, not on top’ was better, he said: ‘Should we be available when needed? Yes. 

‘Should we be clear about what it is we’re trying to say and fearless in the way we do it? Yes. Even if it is uncomfortable. 

‘And should we be absolutely sure people have understood it? Yes. 

‘Should we be on top in the sense we make the decision? No. We’re not elected politicians. We’re not people who’ve got the democratic mandate to make the decisions.’ 

The country’s top scientist also addressed accusations that the Government made U-turns on Covid policy, such as face masks in schools, a circuit breaker lockdown and vaccine passports. 

He said: ‘Science is actually about uncertainty. 

‘Many people think science is about the facts you get out the other end…

‘We’re always challenging those facts, and we’re trying to look and things change, and that uncertainty is part of the progress of science. 

‘Trying to get that framed in some way because it’s no good going to a politician and saying, well, it’s all uncertain. We just don’t know.

‘And decisions have to be made, so it’s trying to get the boundaries of that uncertainty clear for people is important.’

He added: ‘But you know the other thing that’s different is that as a scientist, when you get evidence that changes your mind because it’s now giving you new information, that is an exciting part of scientific progress. For a politician that feels like a U-turn. 

‘Or for the media that often feels like a U-turn.

‘And that that’s a very interesting distinction that’s important to try and communicate effectively to politicians. It’s not a U-turn. 

‘This is new evidence that gives you a new position.’

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