For Boris Johnson’s Science Advisers, Pressure, Anxieties and ‘Pastoral Support’

As public scrutiny of a secretive panel of scientists heightened, its members nearly buckled under the strain.
LONDON — When 50 British scientists and government officials got on a Zoom call on May 7, emotions were running high, and not just because Britain had overtaken Italy for having the highest death toll from the coronavirus in Europe.

Two days earlier, a prominent epidemiologist on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, Neil Ferguson, abruptly resigned after being confronted by a newspaper with evidence that he had breached Britain’s lockdown rules by inviting a woman to visit him in his London apartment.

Dr. Ferguson was the undisputed star of the group, known by its acronym, SAGE. The models generated by his team at Imperial College London had guided the government’s response to the crisis from the earliest days. Yet, he was being branded “Professor Lockdown,” fodder for sneering tabloid headlines.

As the scientists vented their anxieties about their colleague’s defenestration — and the unrelenting pressure and scrutiny that comes with advising the government during a once-in-a-century pandemic — they were urged to seek out “pastoral support” from a new member, Ian L. Boyd, according to minutes of the deliberations.

A 63-year-old Scottish zoologist who advised the government during an earlier outbreak of avian flu, Dr. Boyd is a veteran of the tense interplay between scientists and politicians. He was brought into SAGE by its chairman, Patrick Vallance, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief scientific adviser, to observe the group’s debates and to be a sympathetic ear for the rattled scientists.

“There was an internal dynamic going on that needed to be treated,” Dr. Boyd said, declining to get into details. “If it becomes pathological, it’s for me to call it out. But I hope everybody feels they’re listened to.”

That SAGE would need the equivalent of an in-house therapist is less surprising than it might seem. No other group has attracted more attention or aroused more suspicion during Britain’s pandemic than this elite panel of experts.

Read the full article at the New York Times