SAGE did not advise against reopening schools on 1 June

1 June 2020
What was claimed

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said that 1 June was too soon to reopen schools.

Our verdict

This is incorrect. It was the Independent SAGE, a different group, who gave this advice.

“SAGE concludes June 1st “too soon” to open schools. Teacher unions have been absolutely correct in asking for safety measures to be in place before re-opening.”

Angela Rayner, 22 May 2020

Labour’s Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, tweeted that SAGE—the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which advises the government—had decided that 1 June was too soon to open schools. She added a link to a report in the Times Educational Supplement.

In fact, this report describes the conclusions of “the Independent SAGE”, a different group of scientists, who did decide that there was not enough evidence to say that it was safe to open schools

Later, in response to a message from another Twitter user, Ms Rayner accepted this point, saying, “as it says in the report it’s the Independent SAGE Committee, happy to clarify.”

She has since deleted both tweets.

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Which is the real SAGE?

The official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, is a group of leading experts both from within government and from outside, which is convened by the Cabinet Office during an emergency. It is “responsible for ensuring that timely and coordinated scientific advice is made available to decision makers”. 

SAGE is currently chaired by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, who is currently Sir Patrick Vallance and co-chaired by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty. 

SAGE was first convened during the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and has advised on the volcanic ash emergency in 2010, the winter flooding in 2013, the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and several other emergencies.

Departmental chief scientific advisers and independent experts take part in SAGE meetings. Different experts are invited to different meetings, depending on the subject. “We also include people who may need to act on the advice,” Sir Patrick said during a press briefing on 27 April, “so in this case we include the NHS in this as well.” Various specialist sub-groups also contribute research. 

Until recently, the details of SAGE meetings and the names of the people who took part in them were not made public until after the emergency had ended. In the 27 April press briefing, Sir Patrick explained that this was intended to protect participants from public pressure, and for their own personal security. During this pandemic, however, SAGE has begun to publish more of this information, including minutes of meetings, most of the experts’ names and some of the research they considered

On 24 April, the Guardian reported that the Prime Minister’s chief political adviser Dominic Cummings had attended SAGE meetings. During the 27 April press briefing, Sir Patrick said: “We also have officials from Whitehall, who listen in to the meetings and can ask questions if they wish to, but they’re not part of the general discussion…. Yes that does include people from Number 10. And yes, occasionally they ask questions.”

Some of the research about schools which SAGE considered has been published, but not the advice they produced.

Who are the Independent SAGE?

On 4 May, a different group of experts convened, calling themselves the Independent SAGE. This group is not part of the civil service or the government. The Independent SAGE says that it aims “to provide robust, independent advice to HM Government with the purpose of helping the UK navigate COVID-19 whilst minimising fatalities”.

Its organisers say that, “the activities of the [official SAGE] committee have been kept secret and excluded from scrutiny by the public or wider scientific community.” 

The Independent SAGE is chaired by Sir David King, who was the Government Chief Scientific Adviser between 2000 and 2008. It currently lists 12 members on its website.

Meetings of the Independent SAGE are broadcast live

The Independent SAGE published a discussion document about schools on 22 May, and its full report on 28 May.

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