SAGE’s Patrick Vallance ‘rolled his eyes’ at advisers who dared question whether masks were needed in schools


Sir Patrick Vallance ‘rolled his eyes’ when scientists expressed worries about the knock-on effect of mask-wearing in schools, it was claimed today.

The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, who co-heads the Government’s influential scientific committee SAGE, allegedly expressed his disapproval over the suggestion masks may not be beneficial in schools as they were set to reopen in summer 2020.

Professor Robert Dingwall, a sociologist and former member of the panel, claimed Sir Patrick’s eye roll led him to cut short his speech calling for trials into whether coverings slowed the spread of Covid among pupils.

The comments come after Rishi Sunak yesterday attacked SAGE, arguing it was a mistake to ’empower’ the group, whose doom-laden forecasts swayed Boris Johnson into a series of damaging restrictions and ‘screwed’ Britain.

In the same blistering interview with the Spectator magazine, the Tory leadership hopeful alleged that the panel — made up of dozens of independent scientists — ‘edited out dissenting opinions’ in its minutes and failed to acknowledge trade-offs ‘from the beginning’.

Members of the group yesterday accused Mr Sunak of passing the buck, arguing that ministers are the ones who make decisions and it is ‘not the fault’ of experts that the Government failed to source wider advice on the knock-on effects of lockdown curbs.

The scientists said it wasn’t within their remit and Mr Sunak, in his role as Chancellor, could have established a similar group of economists to make assessments.

But other Cabinet ministers today backed the Prime Ministerial candidate, saying a ‘number of ministers’ including Grant Shapps, Oliver Dowden and Robert Jenrick were concerned about the lack of information from scientists on the financial impact of lockdowns.

Professor Dingwall was a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Group (Nervtag), one of the SAGE sub-committees that held regular Zoom meetings to discuss the pandemic in 2020.

While other members were in a ‘biomedical bubble’, Professor Dingwall claimed he was concerned about the side effects of Covid curbs, such as the two-metre social distancing rule.

At the end of summer 2020, as pupils were set to return to classrooms, Professor Dingwall called for a study into whether mask-wearing in classrooms actually prevented the spread of Covid.

He told The Telegraph: ‘I characterised myself as a loyal opposition. I accepted the science but I didn’t accept the inevitability of the policy conclusions.

‘On one occasion, I could see Sir Patrick in the corner of the screen rolling his eyes at me and thinking “he is banging on about this again”. That was at a Nervtag meeting in the late summer of 2020.’

Professor Dingwall, who has become a vocal critics of the Government’s messages of fear during the pandemic, said the reaction caused him to cut his speech short.

He said SAGE, chaired by Sir Patrick and England’s Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty, is best understood as a ‘network with a powerful clique at the centre of it’.

‘The problem was the social and economic voices were not considered,’ he said.

Dr Gavin Morgan, an educational psychologist at University College London, told The Telegraph that he felt like a ‘lone voice’ on SAGE sub-committee Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B).

By early March 2020 it had ‘already been decided school closures were a good thing’, he said. ‘With the benefit of hindsight, there may have been a bit of groupthink going on in those early meetings.’

However, one of the first documents submitted by SPI-B in March 2020 stated that its consensus view was that ‘school closures would be highly disruptive’.

Schools closed in March 2020 — except for the children of key workers — which left millions trying to learn from home, difficulties accessing free school meals and exams cancelled after a series of U-turns.

When they reopened in the summer, the Government said evidence showed face masks reduced transmission of Covid in schools when worn by an infected person. However, some warned that they interfered with learning.

MPs have described closing schools as the ‘biggest and most catastrophic mistake the Government made during Covid’, while others say SAGE’s evidence ‘bullied’ ministers into lockdowns.

Mr Sunak claimed in one meeting that there was a ‘big silence’ after he implored gatherers to acknowledge that ‘kids not being in school is a major nightmare’.

One scientist who contributed advice to the Government during the pandemic said: ‘If the former chancellor was arguing against school closures he would have found plenty of evidence to support his case from the very group of scientists he now appears to be criticising.’

SAGE member Professor Graham Medley added: ‘Government have the power, so if one member of Cabinet thinks that scientific advice was too “empowered” then it is a criticism of their colleagues rather than the scientists.

‘The Sage meetings were about science, not the policy options, and the minutes reflect the scientific consensus at the time.

‘The disagreement comes out in the uncertainty. There is a balance between the consensus and the uncertainty — for example, we can either all agree that closing schools will reduce transmission with absolute certainty, or that closing schools will have a relatively small effect with lots of uncertainty.

‘Science has no place in the decision whether to close schools or not, but it does have a role to say what the impact on the epidemic might be.’

In an interview with The Spectator, Mr Sunak argued the Government had given too little consideration to the wider impacts of lockdowns in areas such as health, education and the economy.

He said: ‘The script was not to ever acknowledge them. The script was: “oh, there’s no trade-off, because doing this for our health is good for the economy”.

‘I felt like no one talked. We didn’t talk at all about missed [doctor’s] appointments, or the backlog building in the NHS in a massive way. That was never part of it.’

He also hit out at the Government’s reliance on scientific opinion, claiming ministers relied too heavily on SAGE modelling to make key decisions on brining in restrictions and imposing lockdowns.

Scientists warned throughout that these figures showed what would happen if the current trends in infections, hospitalisations and deaths continued.

They noted that the predictions did not not take account of changes in behaviour — with people reducing their social contacts without restrictions when cases start rising — or the wider impacts of Covid curbs and shutdowns.

The modelling became notorious for exaggerated figures about the impact of virus waves.

In the winter Omicron surge, SAGE teams warned that daily hospitalisations could reach 10,000 — more than four times higher than actual peak of around 2,400. Deaths peaked 20-times lower than their worst-case scenario.

And ahead of the winter 2020 surge, they warned deaths could hit 4,000 per day. A peak of 1,820 was logged.

Mr Sunak said: ‘If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed. We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did.

‘And you have to acknowledge trade-offs from the beginning. If we’d done all that, we could be in a very different place. We’d probably have made different decisions on things like schools, for example.’

He said lockdowns — of which England had three, which lasted several month — could have been ‘shorter’, ‘different’ and ‘quicker’.

However, he told The Spectator that he doesn’t believe lockdowns were was a mistake.

But scientists disagreed that SAGE dictated policy and criticised Mr Sunak’s comments, saying it was for Government to analyse scientific evidence and weigh up what steps to take — rather than relying on their numbers.

Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said SAGE’s ‘narrow’ remit prevented it from examining the economic aspects of lockdowns.

While there ‘may be some truth’ to Mr Sunak’s claims that scientific evidence outweighed economic evidence, ministers should have built-up a ‘clearer picture’ rather than seek less scientific data, he said.

Professor Edmunds said: ‘Was there an army of economists in universities and research institutes across the country working night and day to collect, sift, analyse and project the possible impact of different policies?

‘And if not, why not? As the Chancellor of the Exchequer Mr Sunak could have set up such a system, but did not.’

Professor Martin McKee, president at the British Medical Association (BMA), told MailOnline: ‘As Mrs Thatcher said, “Advisers advise, but ministers decide”.

‘If Mr Sunak disagreed so strongly with scientific advice he was entirely capable of making his case in cabinet.’

But Government insiders told The Telegraph that a group of ministers were concerned about the ‘frightening’ lack of evidence on the knock-on effect of Covid restrictions.

They say Mr Sunak led a ‘Save Summer Six’ group which included Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, former Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and then-Housing Minister Robert Jenrick, calling for curbs to be eased sooner.

The anonymous source said there was ‘frustration’ that SAGE presented its findings in a consensus statement — the evidence based on the majority opinion in the group — leaving ministers without the full picture.

Liz Truss, the frontrunner in the race to become the next Prime Minister, last night insisted schools should never have been shut as part of ‘draconian’ Covid restrictions — as she vowed never to impose a lockdown if she becomes prime minister next month.

The Foreign Secretary revealed how she questioned the coronavirus measures brought in from March 2020 and acknowledged, in retrospect, how the Government ‘did too much’ in shutting down the country.


Britain’s Covid pandemic


23 March – In an historic televised address, Boris Johnson announces a nationwide lockdown coming into effect on 26 March. All non-essential shops are required to close and public gatherings of more than two people are banned. Police are given new powers to enforce lockdown with fine.

27 March – Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock test positive for Covid as the virus rips through Westminster. Chris Whitty self-isolates after suffering symptoms.

5 April – The Prime Minister is admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital in London for ‘precautionary’ tests after his symptoms persisted for 10 days. Queen Elizabeth II makes a rare televised broadcast to the UK and the wider Commonwealth, thanking people for following the government’s new Covid rules.

6 April – Boris Johnson moved to intensive care after his condition dramatically worsens. First Secretary of State Dominic Raab stands in as deputy.

23 May – Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief political adviser, is revealed to have travelled 260 miles from London to Durham to self-isolate during lockdown.

26 May – In an extraordinary press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden Dominic Cummings says he doesn’t regret his lockdown-breaking journey to Durham amid calls for him to resign.

15 June – All non-essential retail opens in the UK, and places of worship open for private worship. Face coverings become mandatory on public transport.

4 July – Pubs, restaurants, hairdressers reopen as lockdown measures continue to ease in the UK.

14 September – Social gatherings of more than six are banned as Covid cases begin to rise across the country.

14 October – A new three-tiered system of lockdowns comes into effect in the UK, rating areas in the country medium, high or very high.

31 October – Boris Johnson announces a second national lockdown for England to prevent a ‘medical and moral disaster’, lasting from 5 November to 2 December.

9 November – The Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccine is reported to be 90 per cent successful in preventing COVID-19.

23 November – The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is revealed to be 70 per cent effective. Boris Johnson confirms the previous three-tier system of COVID regulations will return once lockdown finishes on 2 December.

3 December – Britain becomes the first country in the world to approve a Covid vaccine, with the Pfizer/BioNTech arriving the following week. But Boris Johnson warns the public should not get ‘carried away with over optimism’.

14 December – Matt Hancock announces the discovery of a new variant of Covid that is spreading faster in some areas of the country.

19 December – Boris Johnson announces that London, the South East and East of England will go into new Tier 4 restrictions and Christmas bubbles will be scrapped in Tier 4 areas, effectively cancelling Christmas for millions of families.


4 January – The country is plunged into a third national lockdown from 5 January, shutting all non-essential retail and schools. Brian Pinker, 82, becomes the first person to receive the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID vaccine.

22 February – Boris Johnson reveals his roadmap out of the third national lockdown in England, with schools opening on 8 March and non-essential retail and outdoor hospitality opening from 12 April.

8 March – Step one of the unlocking sees schools allowed to reopen and people allowed to meet one other person outside once a day.  The stay at home order remains in place.

29 March – The second part of step one allows people to leave their homes when they wish but they are advised to ‘stay local’. Up to two people can meet indoors and up to six outdoors, including in private gardens. Open air sports facilities can reopen.

12 April – Non-essential shops are reopened and restaurants and pubs are allowed to offer outdoor service as part of step two of the unlocking. Many other outdoor venues also reopen, including zoos and theme parks. Self-contained holidays are permitted.

17 May – Step three of unlocking takes place. Social mixing rules are expanded to allow the rule of six indoors and up to 30 people to meet outdoors. Indoor venues can reopen, including cinemas, restaurants and pubs. Outdoor stadiums can seat up to 10,000 spectators.

14 June –  Boris delays ‘freedom day’ by more than a month after a surge in cases of the Delta variant. The new date for the final unlocking is scheduled for July 19, which the PM says will buy the country time to vaccinate more people.

19 July – The final part of the roadmap out of lockdown sees most legal limits on social contact lifted, including the rule of six.

4 November – UK becomes first country to approve an antiviral that can slash the risk of severe Covid. Nearly half a million doses of molnupiravir, a pill that can be taken twice daily at home, are due for delivery from mid-November.

16 November –  NHS begins Covid booster vaccine rollout campaign after approval from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

23 November: UK scientist sounds the alarm about ‘horrific’ new variant with 32 mutations on its spike protein – which is later named Omicron. The strain causes an explosion of cases in South Africa where it was first detected.  

30 November – The booster vaccine rollout is expanded to all adults aged 18 and over to tackle Omicron. 

8 December – Boris moves England to ‘plan B’ restrictions for winter as the Omicron variant is projected to send case rates to astronomical levels. Face masks become mandatory in most public indoor venues and NHS Covid Passes must be used to gain access to specific settings. People are asked to work from home when possible.


January 27 – The Omicron wave begins to settle a tidal wave of infections sent daily cases to more than 200,000 per day.

February 24 – The Government’s ‘Living with Covid’ is enacted, with all remaining restrictions ending. People who catch the virus no longer have to self-isolate, although they will still be advised to avoid others for five days.

March 18 – Restrictions for all international arrivals are lifted in the UK.

April 1– Free Covid tests are scrapped for most in England under Boris Johnson’s living with Covid plan.

Source: Daily Mail