‘Unproductive’ to blame scientists for government decisions, says Buckland

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Justice secretary Robert Buckland has labelled it “unproductive” to blame scientists for decisions taken by the government during the coronavirus crisis.

His comments came after Cabinet colleague Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, tried to deflect criticism about key decisions, such as ending community testing, on to the scientists advising ministers on the UK response.

Coffey, speaking to Sky News on Tuesday, said: “If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong, I’m not surprised if people then think we made a wrong decision.”

Downing Street distanced itself from her comments shortly afterwards, and Buckland said there is little point in “blaming people” when the Covid-19 pandemic is an “evolving picture”.

Buckland told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think we should all be… working together. I think pointing fingers and blaming people is extremely unproductive.

“I think it is important we acknowledge this is an evolving picture.”

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Therese Coffey
Thérèse Coffey (Jonathan Brady/PA)

He said understanding about the virus and its behaviour is changing regularly, and he cited how the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) had only this week recommended that loss of taste or smell be added to the coronavirus symptoms list.

“What we knew about the virus in February or March is a world away from what we know about it now,” Buckland added.

“And, of course, in June and July we will know even more about its characteristics and what it does.

“We have revised the symptoms list, for example, this week. We’re continuing to evolve and develop our policy to represent that change.

“It would be very difficult now to judge what happened in March, bearing in mind the change in our knowledge.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel used a question about Coffey’s comments to heap praise on those giving advice to ministers.

Asked on LBC if she agrees with her colleague’s indication that some scientific advice has been wrong, Patel said: “I don’t know, because at the end of the day I have been working with SAGE – in every department, in my department I have a fantastic scientific adviser who is part of SAGE.

“We work collectively and I will pay tribute to everybody across the board. I see everybody working in a united way.”

Downing Street, in a briefing with reporters following Coffey’s comments, accepted that ministers bear responsibility for decisions in the coronavirus response.

“The prime minister is hugely grateful for the hard work and expertise of the UK’s world-leading scientists, we’ve been guided by their advice throughout and we continue to do so,” the PM’s official spokesperson said.

“Scientists provide advice to the government, ministers ultimately decide.”

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