Government science advisers have ‘attracted adverse attention’ throughout pandemic, says Prof Semple
Members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have been sent suspicious packages by people who disagree with the government’s response to coronavirus, according to a leading scientist.
Professor Calum Semple, a member of the advisory group, said he and colleagues had also been subject to abuse throughout the pandemic and recalled one “particularly nasty” incident when he was targeted by anti-vaxxers.
The virology expert has regularly appeared on television and radio in the past year to be interviewed about coronavirus in the UK, as have other Sage members.
He stressed that the group served to advise the government, not make policy decisions. Despite this, he said, scientists like himself and others had “attracted adverse attention” throughout the pandemic.
In June, Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, was harassed in a London park by two men. The pair filmed themselves accosting Prof Whitty and shared the footage online. The government said it was considering police protection to Prof Whitty and one of the men involved, 24-year-old Lewis Hughes, later pleaded guilty to assault.
During a webinar hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine on Thursday, Prof Semple was asked about the abuse he had received.
Professor Roger Kirby, president of the society and host of the session, asked: “You’ve been targeted by the anti-vax group, haven’t you?
“Didn’t somebody post something along the lines that ‘Calum kills wildlife for fun?’”
Prof Semple confirmed he had received such a message, calling it “one particularly nasty event”.
“There have been others since then and suspicious packages sent to Sage members and myself,” he said, adding that police had been supportive when threats were made.
The abuse, he said, “comes from both extremes – people that feel that we’re making bad decisions and they don’t appreciate that Sage is not a decision-making body.”
Scientists advising government are there to answer “exam questions from ministers or from chief scientific officers or chief medical officers”, and to give their best estimates, rather than make decisions, he said.
He added: “I’ve never been at a Sage meeting where we’ve sat around drinking coffee saying ‘wouldn’t it be a jolly good idea if we closed the pubs?’ That conversation has never and will never happen.
“It’s about what is the likely contribution of construction versus schools versus large matches, and that’s where you can then present a menu of likely impacts, and then it’s for policymakers to make the decisions, but we’re not a talking shop or we’re not a suggestion box or a brains trust, it’s very much about dealing with inadequate information and giving best opinion.”
A government spokesperson told The Independent:“We take any security issues relating to Sage participants seriously and continue to offer security advice and support so that they can provide the independent expert advice informing to the government to support the response to Covid.”