Scientists advising the government on its response to coronavirus have hit back at claims from mps that they are trying to scare the public into submitting to stringent new restrictions.
During a debate on the pandemic in the house of commons on monday, several conservative mps accused chris whitty, englands chief medical officer, and sir patrick vallance, chief scientific adviser, of orchestrating project fear.
This followed warnings by the two scientists in a televised statement last week that the uk could experience 50,000 new coronavirus infections per day if further nationwide restrictions were not implemented.
Asked on wednesday at a downing street press conference whether the presentation was too extreme, sir patrick said he had been trying to get across several messages, in particular the way cases can rise exponentially in an epidemic.
Subsequent analysis showed that the number of people testing positive for coronavirus was doubling every three to four days in the uk in march and april more quickly than was realised at the time and at the peak probably exceeded 100,000 a day, he said.
Several members of sage, the governments scientific advisory group who have spoken to the financial times in a personal capacity, rejected mps claims that the advice being presented to the government and public tilted too far towards alarm, arguing that it was reasonable and factual.
Politicians need to listen to the scientific consensus, said venki ramakrishnan, president of the royal society, britains senior scientific body. scientists are pretty much in agreement about the way forward. we need to do more to prevent transmission, which occurs most frequently when strangers come together.
However, desmond swayne, conservative mp for new forest west, argued that infection numbers presented by the two advisers to the public last week were designed to scare people unnecessarily.
I will make myself very unpopular, but i believe that the appearance of the chiefs last week should have been a sacking offence, he said.
What was their purpose in presenting such a graph?...it was project fear. it was an attempt to terrify the british people, as if they had not been terrified enough.
This sentiment was shared by conservative mp lucy allan who said the figures cited by prof whitty and sir patrick undermined public trust. it is very uncomfortable being frightened to death by scientists presenting charts to the nation that they must know are wrong, she said.
But several sage members noted that the chief scientific advisers presented their estimate as a worst-case scenario, rather than a forecast.
Chris whitty and patrick vallance were very clear that those figures were not a clear cut prediction. they were being reasonable and were not scaremongering, said robert west, professor of health psychology at university college london and a member of the scientific pandemic influenza group on behaviours (spi-b) that advises sage.
Its just about trying to manage a balance ensuring that people have the right information they need at this point in the epidemic and take the necessary steps but are not overly panicked.
This sentiment was supported by sage member john edmunds of the london school of hygiene and tropical medicine, who argued that scientists had an obligation to highlight the risks of inaction. i have every confidence that we will take action to slow the epidemic and that chris whitty and patrick vallance will have helped bring this about, he said.
Prof edmunds criticised attempts to erode trust in the scientific process, arguing that while some minority views among scientists were being amplified by some sectors of the press and some political commentators to suit their own ends, the majority of scientists were in agreement on the risks coronavirus posed to society.
Sir venki reproached politicians who dont understand the issues and see this as health versus the economy or lives against livelihood. it is not an either/or question. he said the economy could not function properly if people were afraid to go out and spend while a pandemic was raging.
Another senior scientist with inside knowledge of downing street said prime minister boris johnson was somewhat depressed and rather despairing about what is going on. he knows what needs to be done but feels boxed in by politics on the backbenches. number 10 has a good relationship with vallance and whitty.
One member of sage who did not want to be named said he found it deeply concerning that scientists were being blamed for a decision that was not ultimately theirs.
He added that science has no place in deciding the weighting between future deaths and the economic and social impact of more restrictive social measures, adding that the dimensions of the decision were moral and ethical.
Theres a lack of strategy from the decision makers about what were trying to achieve, he added. the government needs to come forward and say: this is our aim.