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The failure to learn from east Asian countries’ response to coronavirus ranks as “one of the biggest failures of scientific advice to ministers in our lifetimes”, a former health secretary has said.
Jeremy Hunt said the UK and other Western nations had a “major blindspot” in dealing with Covid-19 by focusing preparations on dealing with a pandemic flu, rather than a coronavirus.
The UK has suffered more than 32,000 deaths, the worst death toll in Europe - compared to just 256 in South Korea, 20 in Singapore and just 7 in Taiwan, all countries which had experience of previous coronaviruses like Sars.
Hunt blamed a “systemic failure” in the UK caused by the “secrecy” that surrounds the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage).
Sage has published summaries of its meetings weeks after they took place, and recently bowed to pressure to publish a list of its membership.
But Hunt said that the failure to publish advice early in the pandemic meant it was not open to scientific challenge that could have highlighted failings compared with countries which have eventually had many fewer deaths.
The Commons health committee chair told a Commons debate on Covid-19: “It is clear now that a major blindspot in the approach taken in Europe and America was caused by our focus on pandemic flu as opposed to pandemic coronaviruses such as Sars or Mers.
“Asian countries took a different path. As a result (South) Korea had no more than nine deaths on any one day. Singapore is on just 20 deaths in total, Taiwan just 7.
“The failure to look at what these countries were doing at the outset will rank, I am afraid, as one of the biggest failures of scientific advice to ministers in our lifetimes.
“What is at fault is a systemic failure caused by the secrecy that shrouds everything Sage does. Because its advice is not published it cannot be subjected to scientific challenge.
“We used to have the same secrecy over interest rate advice. Then in 1997 the Bank of England was made operationally independent, lines of accountability were clarified and advice was made transparent. Since then inflation has not troubled the British economy.
“Had Sage’s advice been published in January, an army of scientists from our universities could have challenged why testing and contact tracing was not being modelled.
“They could have demanded a ramp up of testing and challenged the behavioural assumptions that delayed lockdown.
“We cannot know for certain but the result may well have been better subsequent advice to ministers and many lives saved.
“British science is world-beating because we have always championed inventiveness and encouraged challenge.
“So let’s sweep aside the secrecy that surrounds Sage and publish what it recommends - including dissenting views.
“That way we will harness the robust exchange of ideas which has always been one of our greatest national strengths and - as the prime minister said yesterday - come out of this crisis stronger and more confident.”