As published in the Times:
The government’s scientific advisers on the coronavirus have received honours for their work before a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.
Six members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have received OBEs in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, despite criticism of the group’s response to the crisis.
Boris Johnson promised in July to hold an independent inquiry into the pandemic so that “lessons could be learnt”. Sage was criticised early in the pandemic for a delay in advising the lockdown. Jeremy Hunt, who was Britain’s longest-serving health secretary, accused the advisers of giving ministers the wrong advice by failing to propose a test and trace strategy in the early stages of the pandemic.
The honours committee is understood to have withheld some awards because controversy is growing about the handling of the pandemic. Those who have received awards were considered to have made a “sustained and positive contribution”.
The honours list, due to be published in June, was delayed to allow nominations for those playing crucial roles in the first months of the pandemic.
David Davis, the former Conservative Party chairman and Brexit secretary, said: “It’s unwise to give honours to people who are still serving on an advisory committee. Fine when they get to the end of the process or when they stand down or retire. But if it’s honours to people when they’re still sitting on the committee — that almost feels like saying, ‘Well, I like your advice and I don’t feel like anybody else’s’. It’s an innately biasing process.”
An advisory group led by Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, has criticised elements of the official committee’s advice, advocating a slower easing of the lockdown and urging the government to “fundamentally change its approach” and seek to eliminate the virus in its entirety.
Sir Desmond Swayne, the Tory MP, said that the scientists were probably eminent people. He added, however: “I just happen to disagree with the advice they’ve been giving.”
The committee members to have received honours are Julia Gog, a professor of mathematical biology at Cambridge University, Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Catherine Noakes, a professor of environmental engineering for buildings at Leeds University, James Rubin, reader in the psychology of emerging health risks at King’s College London, Malcolm Semple, a professor of child health and outbreak medicine at Liverpool University, and Lucy Yardley, a professor of health psychology at the universities of Bristol and Southampton.
Sir Alistair Graham, a former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, said: “I can see why people would argue that it is too early for the awards. Is the criticism [of the inquiry] going to be of such a devastating nature that the honours look inappropriate? You have to take that risk.”
A frontline NHS worker who received an honour has raised concerns about the treatment of black and ethnic minority staff during the pandemic.
Felicia Kwaku, who received an OBE for services to nursing, said: “We knew in April that nurses and doctors were dying and a lot of them were black and Asian. Staff were telling us really harrowing things about not having enough PPE, being disproportionately deployed to Covid areas.”
Ms Kwaku, 52, is an associate director of nursing at King’s College NHS Foundation Trust and chairwoman of Chief Nursing Officer’s black minority ethnic strategic advisory group. She said: “A lot of black and Asian nurses and midwives were concerned that managers were not making risk assessments.” She added that she had records of 77 nurses and midwives who died of the virus and that almost all had been black or Asian.