The government's top group of experts is known as the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE for short.
They step in to inform British leadership when making decisions in times of crisis, such as during the coronavirus pandemic.
What is SAGE?
SAGE is the elite team of advisers responsible for ensuring that timely and coordinated scientific advice is given to decision makers in the cabinet during COBRA meetings.
It is responsible for pulling together the scientific research and analysis from across government, academia and industry.
It then provides a single source of co-ordinated scientific and technical advice to the Civil Contingencies Committee (COBRA) and answers questions set by the Committee.
COBRA, chaired by the prime minister, then directs the government’s response to the emergency.
The advice provided by SAGE is independent and does not represent official government policy.
When has SAGE been activated before?
SAGE has been activated in the past.
- 2019: In August 2019 an urgent meeting was called in response to the potential breach of Toddbrook reservoir
- 2016: Zika outbreak – there were five meetings between February and August to assess the emerging health hazard presented by the extremely contageous Zika virus.
- 2015: The Nepal Earthquake – SAGE advised on the further threat of the severe VIII earthquake that hit Nepal, which affected 5.3 million people and killed around 9,000.
- 2014: SAGE was activated in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
- 2013: SAGE masterminded the response to the UK winter flooding event between December 2013 and March 2014.
- 2011: SAGE advised on the Fukushima nuclear emergency.
- 2010: The team helped deal with the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland that had all our planes grounded.
- 2009-2010: Meetings took place between May 2009 and January 2010 to fend off Swine Flu.
Who is in SAGE?
SAGE composition varies depending on the emergency – for an engineering crisis you bring in the engineers, while medics will come in for coronavirus.
The SAGE team is the spearhead of three sub-teams working together:
- New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG)
- Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) (Department for Health and Social Care)
- Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B)
Who are the sub-teams?
The three sub-teams address the UK's complete strategy on mitigating the threat, dealing with behaviour, modelling based on the past pandemics and understanding the threat that is COVID-19 itself.
New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG)
NERVTAG provides scientific risk assessment of the new virus, then gives advice and options on how to handle and beat the threat posed by new and emerging respiratory virus threats like coronavirus.
Current members are:
- Professor Peter Horby (Chair): University of Oxford
- Professor Wendy Barclay: Imperial College London
- Dr Matthew Donati: Public Health England, Bristol Public Health Laboratory and University Hospitals Trust
- Professor John Edmunds: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
- Professor Neil Ferguson: Medical Research Council, Imperial College London
- Professor Andrew Hayward: University College London
- Dr Benjamin Killingley: University College London Hospital NHS Trust
- Professor Wei Shen Lim: Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust
- Dr Jim McMenamin: Health Protection Scotland
- Professor Peter Openshaw: Imperial College London
- Professor Malcolm Semple: University of Liverpool
- Professor Robert Dingwall: Dingwall Enterprises Ltd. and Nottingham Trent University
- Dr James Rubin: Kings College London
- Dr Chloe Sellwood: Co-opted Member, NHS England
- Dr Bob Winter: Co-opted Member, NHS England
- Professor Ian Brown: Co-opted Member, Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA)
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Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M)
The advice given by SPI-M is based on infectious disease modelling and epidemiology.
It is chaired by Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
They produced a model on how to handle a flu pandemic like Coronavirus as far back as 2018, on which the current approach is based, however, the two plans are independent as one is based in theory and government action is reactionary.
Their evolving model is based on past pandemic scenarios and doesn't take into account "other factors such as practicality, proportionality and questions of value for money".
SPI-M is independent and the members are not paid.
You can read their model here.
Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B)
SPI-B is the behavioural scientists and academic specialists in health psychology, social psychology, anthropology and history.
Members are the brains behind actions to anticipate and help people to adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical and epidemiological experts to control the spread of infection.
They are the ones who are masterminding social distancing advice and easing the public toward changes like increased hand washing and getting back to normal.
They review Public Health England guidance to support people who are self-isolating. They also analyse the risk of public disorder under various scenarios, including staff shortages in the police force owing to sickness and increased pressure on health services.
Does the government have to follow SAGE's advice?
No, SAGE isn't a decision making body, but their advice is respected.
While ministers can do what they like within reason, they have other mitigating factors to consider, like financial, political, social, global and practical restraints.
But for now most people are following the advice of the experts.
Measures like social distancing are working and we are seeing that the advice is working everywhere where it is taken seriously.
Sadly we can also see rising risks in areas that don't social distance.
This puts everyone in the UK and the world at further risk until we can find a vaccine and find an end to the coronavirus pandemic.
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