On November 21st 2022, The Grayzone exposed how the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (iSAGE), which relentlessly sought to influence public perceptions and government policy on the COVID19 pandemic, is a highly partisan political activist sect, possessed of unclear connections to intelligence actors, secretly coordinating with and acting upon the orders of controversial Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr.
Launched with much fanfare in May 2020, iSAGE’s stated mission was to push for government transparency on health policy, and offer independent oversight of the British government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies- SAGE. In practice, it acted as an aggressive, unaccountable lobby group for ‘Zero COVID’, and the most excessive and intrusive counter-pandemic measures.
What’s more, SAGE and iSAGE’s virtually identical names, which implied the latter was more reliable and impartial than the former, and significantly overlapping membership, created significant public confusion. On several occasions, the wild pronouncements of iSAGE and its members were presented by the media and lawmakers as official SAGE policy, while iSAGE representatives were wrongly characterized as government representatives.
Leaked emails reviewed by Propaganda in Focus shed further light on how, behind closed doors, iSAGE sought to cement its position as a leading public health advisory body in Britain, without authority, supporting evidence, or any regard to basic scientific standards.
These communications provide shocking detail on the extent to which dissent among the organisation’s members on several key issues related to mask-wearing – such as their efficacy, and the morality and viability of mandates – was by reflex systematically maligned and suppressed by its members, including chief David King, former top scientific advisor to the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
In the process, legitimate internal disputes and concerns were obscured from external view and a false picture of unanimity on science relating to the pandemic was promoted. Resultantly, British citizens and politicians alike were manipulated into embracing and following pandemic restrictions that were needless, counterproductive, or outright harmful.
Just as iSAGE’s commitment to transparency didn’t apply to its own operations, or those of the secretive spook-infested Joint Biosecurity Centre and Health Security Agency, two state bodies created during the pandemic that supplanted and replaced established departments and ministries, so too was the organisation’s commitment to “following the science” empty sloganeering and propaganda.
‘I do not support this’
On July 17th 2020, as Britain began to emerge from a grinding four-month lockdown, iSAGE published Policy for England on face coverings to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2. The report enthusiastically endorsed legally mandating masks indoors and in public spaces, and potentially outdoors in future, despite acknowledging “very little transmission” occurred in exterior settings.
These bold recommendations depended almost exclusively on the findings of a “longitudinal study from Germany,” which iSAGE claimed “strongly” supported “mandating use of face coverings in public spaces,” as it would “substantially reduce infection rates.”
Along the way, iSAGE went to the bizarre extent of offering extensive guidance for a “comprehensive public information campaign” through which the government could “promote effective wearing of face coverings in enclosed public indoor spaces,” so “the public understand the need for the legislation and accept it [emphasis added].” Among other things, the group proposed “endorsement and [mask] wearing by role models such as celebrities, including musicians, actors, and sports figures.”
That report’s introduction states it was published “following public consultation” on July 14th 2020 – yet, leaked iSAGE emails reveal it was prepared well in advance of this date, and only after the document “going to press” was it decided internally to hold the public consultation.
Who made this call isn’t clear, but a group email apprising iSAGE members of the change was sent by David King’s son and iSAGE PR chief Zack on July 13th, with Carole Cadwalladr – founder of iSAGE “parent” organisation The Citizens, a shady activist group – copied in.
It’s clear too from resulting correspondence iSAGE member Allyson Pollock, Director of Newcastle University’s Institute of Health and Society, had grave misgivings about the report, and its accompanying press release, in which David King was quoted declaring legally-enforced mandates to be a fait accompli, and science supporting the move settled and indisputable. She professed to be “very unhappy” about the wording, adding forcefully “I do not support this.”
“Dave’s comment is far too strong re: legislation. The evidence is still not strong either re: transmission, harms or benefits. This is not worded as a consultation,” Pollock warned.
She went on to suggest King “should be drawing attention to the uncertainty in the science,” and provided an alternative accompanying quote, in which he would make clear that concrete evidence on mask efficacy was unforthcoming, and “necessary primary research studies” on potential mandate harms, “including behavioural aspects, and costs and benefits,” had not yet been conducted.
Pollock also recommended adding calls for a “thorough review of the science” before any mask mandate was considered by authorities, while making clear that despite evidence in favour of mask mandates being “contested”, a majority of iSAGE members agreed on the basis of “incomplete evidence” there were benefits to mask wearing indoors “in certain situations.”
Despite the generous compromise, Pollock’s entreaties fell on deaf ears. It could well be that iSAGE was encouraged in this intransigence by the British government announcing legislation mandating mask wearing right before the report was published. Did its members know this was impending?
On July 15th 2020, Michie informed iSAGE she and Robert West had updated the document, removing “justifications” for mask mandates as they were “no longer relevant” following that announcement, and inviting other members to submit “ESSENTIAL [emphasis in original] comments/suggested edits” before 8pm that day.
Undeterred, Pollock urged the report “[stress] uncertainties in the science” around masks, rather than framing evidence supporting mandates as “accumulating”, given doubts that “even those of us with the best of intentions” would wash their face masks daily. She noted there had already been two mask-motivated murders recorded, and iSAGE’s report made no mention of obvious concerns related to masks, including the spread of colds and flu, and waste.
“When do we stop wearing them? Prevalence is falling so harms and costs could well outweigh benefits very soon. That’s the same for mass testing. The public has so much to take in just now including the ineffective test and trace system which has been sidelined completely,” Pollock lamented. “I fear masks are all a big distraction from the big story of inequalities and poverty and once again shifting responsibility to the public.”
Michie duly edited the report’s text ever so slightly to reflect Pollock’s misgivings – amendments so mild, iSAGE’s pronouncements still amounted to bombastic advocacy for mask mandates.
Dissatisfied, Pollock suggested adding a “dissenting note” to the report indicating she had personally “expressed a minority view” that British citizens “should be properly informed about the uncertainties over the science of the use of face masks,” and any “mass population intervention, especially when underpinned by legislation and enforcement” must be “supported by a strong evidence base.” The inclusion of such caveats is standard practice for collective scientific advisory bodies, for example the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Curiously, this prompted Michie to reveal she had “told Carole and Zack” the best means of Pollock disassociating herself with the report’s contents was by inserting a much-truncated version of her proposed dissenting note, which trimmed out the entirety of the substance of her misgivings, and instead simply stated she was the sole iSAGE member not to endorse the document’s findings.
“Dear Carole and Zack, happy to discuss but please include my reason for dissent – dissenting notes aren’t usually censored or edited by the majority!” Pollock replied, no doubt exasperated that two individuals with zero scientific background were in ultimate charge of the report’s production and content.
Again though, Pollock was rebuffed. UCL virologist Deenan Pilay expressed anxiety over including any “dissenting voice” in a report seeking to “[bring] clarity to the current set of conflicting advance [sic] and confusion,” especially given “the weakness of SAGE.”
He believed acknowledging disagreement would undermine iSAGE’s ultimate objective of “[having] an immediate impact” on government action.
“We are an incredibly collaborative group, and make more effort than other groups to reach a consensus,” Pilay unironically cautioned. “If this has not been possible on this occasion, and we are unable to include a phrase in the text which reflects the continuing uncertainty in the evidence…then we could just leave your name off the author list for this particularly [sic] document.”
So it was after a lengthy call between King and Pollock, her name was removed from the report entirely, and no disagreement within iSAGE’s ranks on mask mandates was mentioned at any stage therein. She would clash with her iSAGE colleagues again and again that summer.
For example, in early September 2020, a draft iSAGE report advocated “regular testing” of British University students and staff, including lecturers, and directing higher education recipients not to live on campus while studying, but “nearby”. These proposals were not included in the group’s final report on the matter though, reflecting SAGE’s position.
Believing shifting stances on University reopening to be “a strength and not a weakness,” Pollock authored an op-ed for The British Medical Journal making clear iSAGE’s draft guidance “no longer stands,” and the reasons why, in the belief her “independent” peers would endorse it. One by one though, they refused.
“Not everyone has signed up…We work collectively,” Michie explained – an amazing hypocrisy, given internal strife over the mask mandate report. David King also weighed in, arguing “splitting openly on a decision” would “[call] our existence and influence into question.”
“Any group of this kind should always operate by consensus if it can,” King added. “Once the decision is reached, the whole group is represented by it. Any disagreement should if possible not be taken into the public domain, as this will be exploited by those who wish to discredit us. Can we please all agree to move forward on this basis?”
Towards the end of September, Pollock asked why iSAGE’s governance system wasn’t structured on the IPCC’s model. Deenan countered that unlike the Panel, iSAGE was not operating under the auspices of the UN or corresponding “representative”, and “having minority reports, or highlighting major differences in our views will significantly reduce our impact.”
Physician Gabriel Scally, former regional director of public health for the south west of England, reinforced Deenan’s view, stating iSAGE was “very much seized with the need to change and improve” government approaches to the pandemic, and the group’s “ability to influence policy” depended on “[providing] a unified voice” at all times:
“We all should agree to refrain from undermining or contradicting our reports and proposals. Personally, if I found myself in conflict with our findings and proposals, I would have difficulty continuing to engage.”
Pollock’s ill-fated objections were nonetheless taken extremely seriously at the highest levels of iSAGE. On September 30th, King circulated to members a revised “regulatory system,” including a new code of conduct and “process for report writing,” in order to amend the group’s “governance structure.” In closing, he thanked recipients for their “extraordinary commitment,” which had produced “such a high impact.”
Referencing the mask report imbroglio, Pollock promptly retorted there was an urgent need for iSAGE to have “a clear process for making clear areas of disagreement on reports rather than suppressing it under a veil of consensus”:
“That would also be transparent and better for interdisciplinary working which is so hard. We leave ourselves exposed when we exceed the evidence and don’t state the unknowns and uncertainties and risks and harms before making policy pronouncements eg. closing pubs and restaurants, mass testing in universities, Zero COVID etc.”
Despite adding she was “fine to sign up to this for now,” on October 3rd David King regretfully informed her iSAGE’s membership was “refreshing”, and her position would be terminated immediately. Few other iSAGE representatives were copied into the email, although Cadwalladr and Zack King were.
Pollock’s exit was dignified and amicable. “In the spirit of being constructive,” she even outlined a number of proposals for improving iSAGE’s work on her way out. As the group’s subsequent publications and public pronouncements amply show, those suggestions were completely ignored.
‘We’ve all got to change our behaviour’
Given this perverse treatment, and iSAGE’s blatant disregard for and brazen breaches of basic scientific norms, it’s remarkable Pollock has remained silent about her experiences since departure. She has nonetheless issued a steady stream of criticism on iSAGE pronouncements old and new, in particular when her previously disregarded concerns have been completely vindicated, or even echoed by iSAGE.
For example, in June 2021 Gabriel Scally declared FFP2 masks to be a useless “relic” from “a time when droplets were thought to be the main means” of diseases spreading. As “we know more now,” he contended, they should be consigned to the proverbial rubbish bin.
In doing so, Scally neglected to acknowledge he was placing himself “in conflict” with past iSAGE “findings and proposals”. Every member of the scientist collective had almost daily over the previous 16 months urged those same masks to be worn by everyone, in almost every conceivable context.
Scally was a particularly aggressive advocate. That March, he had even demanded children as young as six be forced to wear masks in school by state decree, claiming to be “at a loss” over why according mandates hadn’t yet been implemented.
In August 2020 though, Scally hinted a rather different agenda behind mask-wearing than protecting public health. He told the BBC that government-enforced face coverings were essential, as they served as “a reminder these aren’t normal times and we’ve all got to change our behaviour [emphasis added].”
Scally is far from alone in having repeatedly repudiated and contradicted his previously stated positions on COVID19 prevention and mitigation. At the start of 2022, the almost entire English-language media moved in lockstep from scaremongering, minute-by-minute updates on the pandemic’s spread and death toll, and direct and indirect advocacy for harsh lockdown restrictions, to declaring the crisis by-and-large over, despite transmission and recovery rates remaining unchanged from the “start” of the pandemic.
A palpable example of this seismic paradigm shift is provided by The Guardian. In July 2020, as Britain was exiting its first grinding lockdown, it published an editorial forecasting that COVID19 measures of some kind would need to remain in place for many years to come, and calling on England and Wales to adopt Independent SAGE’s “Zero COVID” platform. That iSAGE was created by Carole Cadwalladr, one of its sister paper’s leading contributors, was unmentioned.
Fast forward to January 2022, and Cadwalladr’s employer conducted a highly sympathetic interview with leading epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse, who firmly declared, “Britain got it wrong on Covid,” and lockdowns to be “a failure of public health policy.” Coincidentally, he has also since revealed he was once asked to “correct his views” by state decree, after criticising a chart presented by Britain’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance on September 21st 2020.
At that briefing, Vallance stated the epidemic was doubling roughly every seven days, and there would be 50,000 cases per day by mid-October. Woolhouse branded this projection “implausible” via the Science Media Centre, leading to a “flurry” of emails from senior government scientists, urging him to retract his statement and speak more carefully in future.
Herein lies the rub. In the context of a pandemic, few would surely argue with the necessity of nationally-enforced protective measures in service of public health, which reduce harm or outright death, and collective public adherence thereof. Concurrently though, there are few if any other periods in modern history in which it has been more vital for sensible, sober, scientific dialogue on such matters.
This need was particularly pronounced given many aggressively advocated-for measures purportedly intended to limit the spread of COVID19 and save lives, were hitherto untested and unproven, and their efficacy, let alone necessity, was far from clear. This of course included society-wide lockdowns, bans on social contact, mass school closures, legally-enforced mask wearing, vaccine mandates, and digital health passports.
Yet, throughout the pandemic, space for any public discussion or debate on what policies should be enforced, why, how, and when, and whether the costs of certain courses of action outweighed their benefits, was reduced to zero. Resultantly, simply sharing official data on COVID19 survival rates, let alone questioning the cataclysmic pronouncements of state and quasi-state officials, became grounds for social media suspensions, personal and professional ostracism, and worse.
The avowed founding principle of iSAGE was “science is always based on a debate,” and the group ostensibly intended to “bring together different viewpoints so that the scientific balance can be constructed.” In reality, it eagerly worked to crush “different viewpoints” among its members and the public alike, in order to maintain a false picture of “scientific balance” which either conveniently reinforced whatever the British government’s policy was in a given week, or went far, far further.
(Featured Image: “File:MTA Deploys Additional Personnel to COVID Hotspots (50431706578).jpg” by Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York from United States of America is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)