The UK’s chief scientific adviser has admitted to the Science and Technology committee that scientists working on the pandemic “haven’t got good evidence” to justify imposing the new lockdown measures on churches.
Sir Patrick Vallance made the comment on Tuesday when asked by Conservative MP Mark Logan “what advice does SAGE give to Government in making decisions where evidence is weak, for example on the closing of places of worship?”
Sir Patrick said, “you’re right we haven’t got good evidence on the exact value of each intervention on R. We produced a paper suggesting what that might be in different areas but really said look this is not a very exact science at all.”
He added that scientists have taken the perspective of how beneficial it can be to impose coronavirus restriction as “a package”.
“You had to think of this as a series of things that interrupt individual activities, but also as a whole, will have an effect on contact and interaction,” he said.
“And the danger in trying to then pick apart each one, and when you get down to the ones towards the lower level, where you might say, well, this doesn't make much of an impact on its own, is that you keep cutting things off, and then you end up with a suboptimal package that doesn't get R below one.”
Mr Logan, who represents Bolton North East, also asked “how much transmission do you think has taken place within places of worship. Is it significant or is it quite negligible?”
Sir Patrick answered “I don’t think we have good data to answer that with any degree of certainty.”
His colleague UK Chief Medical Officer Prof. Chris Whitty then said “weak data” shows that even if a place of worship keeps to high coronavirus safety standards, people can congregate outside which can in turn lead to transmissions.
“But these are very variable,” he added. “And I think a lot of this is anecdotal. So I think it should be a little bit careful about putting that out as a scientific fact, this is just reported behaviours.”
They also cited reports of Covid-19 outbreaks in churches in the US as a reason for banning church services in the UK.
However, Prof Whitty praised faith communities for being “extraordinarily responsible in the way they’ve tried to address this”.
Campaign group The Christian Institute has criticised the “glaring inconsistencies” in the government’s plans. It has complained that universities are “allowed to function normally – despite being hotspots for Covid transmission – while shutting down churches which have successfully avoided major outbreaks”.
Responding to Sir Patrick’s admission, Simon Calvert, deputy director for public affairs at The Christian Institute said: “Yesterday we asked where the evidence was to justify this restriction on the fundamental right to worship. Today we learned there is none. This is shocking.
“No-one underestimates the challenge of Covid but if the Government is going to keep universities and garden centres open while forcing places of worship to close, they should at least have a clear justification. It’s now apparent that they don’t.
“This is especially hard to understand given that churches have been rigorous in complying with Covid rules. They really should be allowed to continue as they were. It’s not too late for the Government to amend its regulations. Failing that, they can bring forward new amending regulations in the next week to fix this problem.”