What is the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and who are the experts behind the government's Covid-19 response?

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has been thrust into the limelight as it advises the Government on its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The evidence produced by this body of scientists, public health workers and academics has helped shaped government policy during the coronavirus crisis - and by extension your life.

But what is Sage?

Who is it made up of?

And just how does it inform the government’s response to Covid-19?

ITV News spoke to experts who gave us the lowdown on how this advisory body works.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance either side of Boris Johnson at a Downing Street briefing. Credit: PA

What is Sage?

Essentially Sage is the emergency group for science, the ‘science COBR’ if you like.

While it does not make decisions, the current coronavirus picture is informed by what comes out of Sage.

It brings together expertise from across the scientific spectrum, including epidemiologists, clinical and vaccine experts, forecasting and modellers who feed their research and data into Sage.

Sage’s role is to provide consensus recommendations on all the key issues, based on this body of scientific evidence presented by its members.

This includes everything from how a potential Covid-19 vaccine is progressing, to school closures, the usefulness of face masks and compliance.

These informed recommendations are then passed on to government ministers and decision makers to help guide the response to Covid-19.

Sage will help determine whether the UK stays in lockdown. Credit: PA
  • How often does it meet?

Since the beginning of January, Sage has met every Tuesday and Thursday.

  • Who is in Sage?

Sage comprises of leading lights in their representative fields from across the worlds of academia, public health and science.

They do not operate under government instruction and membership changes based on the expertise needed to address the crisis the country is faced with.

To make things slightly more complicated, Sage is made up of a series of subcommittees as well as ad-hoc subject specific groups that are called upon as needed.

In a letter to the Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee Greg Clark at the beginning of April, Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance said members of Sage and the expert groups came from over 20 different institutions who in turn considered research and papers from other “many sources including the Covid-19 Genomic UK Consortium, Imperial College London, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Manchester Epidemic Group and many academic, clinical and other groups".

Several members of Sage have become well known faces since the coronavirus daily press conferences began. Credit: Downing Street

Typically Sage is chaired by the Government Chief Scientific Advisor - at present, this is Sir Patrick - or a departmental chief scientific advisor.

The government had been criticised for not officially disclosing the names of some Sage members, with campaigners demanding transparency over how coronavirus decisions are made.

Bowing to pressure, a list revealing some of the members of the group was released by the government on May 4.

Many of the names are already familiar to the public as they stand either side of a government minister at the daily Downing Street briefing, including England's Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty, his deputies Dr Jenny Harries and Professor Jonathan Van Tam, and Public Health England medical director Professor Yvonne Doyle.

The current coronavirus picture is informed by what comes out of Sage . Credit: PA
  • Does the government have to listen to Sage’s advice?

The government is not absolutely beholden to what Sage says, but the combined weight of all that knowledge, which has been referred to as “like having Google in the room”, makes their expertise highly valuable to the government.

The evidence Sage puts forward is also just one part of what the government considers before adopting new policies and interventions during an emergency.

In this current pandemic, the government also has to consider other factors, such as the likelihood of social unrest and the impact on the economy andinternational relationship factors.

In some instances, however, it can have a momentous and immediate influence on government policy.

A team at Imperial College London led by Professor Neil Ferguson produced a landmark report in March stating that if the UK was not put on lockdown, 250,000 people would die due to coronavirus.

The paper was enough to persuade Prime Minister Boris Johnson to abandon his less stringent response and announce a full-scale lockdown for the country on March 23.

Boris Johnson announcing the lockdown on March 23 2020. Credit: PA
  • Can I read what goes on at a Sage meeting?

Some of the sub-committees currently do publish minutes, and the plan is to publish Sage minutes in more detail at the end of the emergency.

But according to our source, there is too much highly sensitive material in these documents for them to be published at the present time.

The government is however publishing the scientific evidence supporting the state’s response to Covid-19.

There’s currently one batch of evidence available online and a second batch is due to be published soon.

  • What data do they weigh up relating to the lockdown and the spread of the virus?

Despite all the different groups, individuals and committees that make up Sage, it does for the most part reach a consensus agreement - they are, after all, acting on evidence.

When considering next steps, the experts will look at the current situation - the number of coronavirus infections and deaths, for example.

This is called “now-casting”.

They will also look at forecasting based on models.

And Sage will also action research.

If the data is pointing towards something that has not been explored, Sage will commission research to fully understand the extent of an issue and get a full clinical picture, for example the benefit or not of wearing face masks.

Sage was called when Toddbrook reservoir was damaged by heavy rainfall in August 2019. Credit: PA
  • When has Sage been activated before?

The coronavirus crisis is not the first time Sage has been called on.

There are eight emergencies in the last 11 years - since its inception - when the government has sought expert scientific advice.

Sage was last activated in response to the potential breach of Toddbrook reservoir in Whaley Bridge in August 2019.

A Precautionary Sage (known as Pre-Sage) was activated to advise on the Zika virus outbreak in 2016.

In 2015, Sage was activated to advise on the Nepal earthquake, and in 2014 it was called in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Sage also advised on winter flooding in the UK in 2013, the Japan nuclear incident in 2011, the volcanic ash emergency in 2010 and the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know