UK: a former member of SAGE explains how the science advisory group really works

24th March 2020

Ian Boyd

Professor of Biology,
University of St Andrews


COVID-19 has brought a lot of new people to the attention of the public. Unlike politicians, these “chief” advisers who are mainly scientists and medics, are normally only active behind the scenes.
How do they operate and how can single individuals work across the wide range of technical knowledge needed in the complex circumstances associated with COVID-19? The answer is that they are at the pinnacle of a system of science and medical advice involving perhaps hundreds of technical specialists. Something called SAGE is at the centre of this system.


SAGE, the Science Advisory Group for Emergencies, is a formal part of the UK government’s emergency response structure. It’s a subcommittee of COBR, which stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (popularly referred to as COBRA).

The government recently released details of the SAGE discussions about its advice to government on how to respond to COVID-19. This has set off a series of articles about the government response, some supportive and some critical.

There has been particular criticism about decisions being taken behind closed doors. In my time as a chief scientific adviser in government, I experienced many SAGEs and chaired a few of them. Here, I explain what happens behind those doors and why they need to remain closed – at least initially.

Behind closed doors

When an emergency happens in the UK, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS), which sits in the Cabinet Office, the central government department responsible for the organisation of government, calls and organises COBR. The response time for this can be as little as 30 minutes.

The CCS prepares a briefing for COBR, known as a CRIP, the Common Recognised Information Picture. This is the basis upon which all discussions and decision are made. It ensures that everybody involved is working off the same information.

SAGE is established at the request of COBR and it is normally chaired by the government’s chief scientific adviser – at present, this is Patrick Vallance. However, SAGE may be chaired on some occasions by other departmental chief scientific advisers or the chief medical officer. The advice from SAGE contributes to the briefing and the chair of SAGE attends COBR.

Read the full article at The Conversation