This article presents a preliminary analysis of the advice provided by the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) held between 22 January and 23 March 2020 in response to the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Drawing on the published minutes of the group’s meetings, the article examines what was known and not known, the assumptions and working practices that shaped their work, and how this knowledge was reflected in the decisions made by the government.
In doing so, the article critically examines what it means for policy making to be ‘led by the science’ when the best available science is provisional and uncertain. Using ideas of ‘externality’ and ‘evidential significance’, the article argues that the apparent desire for high levels of certainty by both scientists and political decision-makers made early action impossible as the data needed were not, and could not be, available in time. This leads to an argument for changes to the institutions that provide scientific advice based on sociologically informed expectations of science in which expert judgement plays a more significant role.