Scientists who have been advising the government during the coronavirus crisis have accused the prime minister of “trashing” the advice they have given to help curb the outbreak.
Members of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) hit out at Boris Johnson on Sunday evening, after he backed Dominic Cummings’ decision to travel 260 miles to his parents’ house in the North East during lockdown.
SPI-B also advises the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which feeds into the government’s approach to tackling the pandemic.
Professor Stephen Reicher told how he felt “building trust” with the public to “secure adherence to the measures necessary” to control the virus have been damaged.
As one of those involved in SPI-B, the Government advisory group on behavioural science, I can say that in a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19.
— Stephen Reicher (@ReicherStephen) May 24, 2020
Writing on Twitter, Prof Reicher said: “As one of those involved in SPI-B, the Government advisory group on behavioural science, I can say that in a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19.
“Be open and honest, we said. Trashed. Respect the public, we said. Trashed Ensure equity, so everyone is treated the same, we said. Trashed. Be consistent we said. Trashed. Make clear ‘we are all in it together’. Trashed.”
He added: “It is very hard to provide scientific advice to a government which doesn’t want to listen to science. I hope, however, that the public will read our papers (publicly available) and continue to make up for this bad government with their own good sense.”
Two other members and health psychologists – University College of London professors Susan Michie and Robert West – backed the comments.
Prof Michie wrote on Twitter: “As another member of SPI-B, I completely agree” while Prof West said: “I am sorry to have to say that as another member of SPI-B I have to agree.”
Prof West, professor of Health Psychology at UCL, said the PM’s defence of Mr Cummings poses “a real threat” to the public’s adherence to the lockdown.
He said it was imperative the public did not abandon social distancing despite the exceptions made for the PM’s chief aide.
“The key thing we need to remember is that the reason for the lockdown is not for the sake of people like Dominic Cummings or the prime minister, it is for our friends and families’ sake so the rules are really, really important.”
The trio have recently been critical of the government during the saga, which first broke on Friday evening after a joint investigation by the Mirror and the Guardian.
The newspapers revealed Mr Cummings went with his family to his parents’ house in Durham at the end of March.
Downing Street later stated he felt it was the right thing to do as he was concerned he and his wife would be unable care for their son as the couple had COVID-19 symptoms.
Despite widespread calls for Mr Cummings’ sacking the PM has stuck by him, saying during a press briefing on Sunday he had acted with “integrity”.
Prof Michie called for Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, to give his own briefings independently from the cabinet in the future.
It is very important to separate scientific advice from how it is used (or not). My fear is that science, which is key to getting through this pandemic, will be diminished in the eyes of the public by association with this government. Independent scientific communication key. https://t.co/SH2EWgqddc
— Susan Michie (@SusanMichie) May 24, 2020
She wrote: “I hope that @CMO_England @uksciencechief & colleagues will in future give their own scientific briefings to the British public unencumbered by distrust of @BorisJohnson & co. Never thought I’d say this but don’t want science to be dragged down by association with dishonesty.”
Meanwhile, former Durham chief constable Mike Barton also has accused Mr Cummings of “trying to evade” his responsibilities.
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