Sage members sent suspicious packages throughout pandemic, says leading scientist

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Members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have been sent suspicious packages and hate mail throughout the pandemic, one of the UK’s leading virologists has revealed.

Prof Calum Semple, a member of Sage and the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said the incidents of abuse included one “particularly nasty” experience when he was targeted by anti-vaxxers.

Semple, a professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, has regularly appeared on television and radio to be interviewed about Covid since the pandemic began.

He said during this time he and his colleagues on Sage had “attracted adverse attention” from people frustrated by the government’s response to Covid.

In June the government said it was considering giving police protection to Prof Chris Whitty, its chief medical officer and a fellow Sage member, after he was physically assaulted in central London and verbally abused earlier in the year. Anti-lockdown protesters had also gathered outside an address they believed to be Whitty’s home shouting “murderer”.

Lewis Hughes, 24, from Romford, was given an eight-week suspended sentence after admitting assaulting the chief medical officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty, in St James’s Park. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

During a webinar hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine on Thursday, Semple was asked by Prof Roger Kirby, president of the society and host of the session, whether he had personally been targeted by anti-vaxxers. “Didn’t somebody post something along the lines that ‘Calum kills wildlife for fun?”’ Kirby asked.

Semple confirmed this was correct. But he also revealed that Sage members regularly talk to the police about such threats. He said: “We are fortunate that the police are open to hearing from us and there’s good liaison support for us when these threats are made. That was one particularly nasty event.

“There have been others since then and suspicious packages sent to Sage members and myself.” He did not give details.

Semple suggested the abuse comes from both those opposed to Covid restrictions but also others who have wanted to see tighter measures. He said: “This comes from both extremes – people that feel that we’re making bad decisions and they don’t appreciate that Sage is not a decision-making body.”

He stressed that scientists advising government are there to answer “exam questions from ministers or from chief scientific officers or chief medical officers”, and to give their best estimates.

He added: “I’ve never been at a Sage meeting where we’ve sat around drinking coffee saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be a jolly good idea if we closed the pubs?’ That conversation has never and will never happen.

“It’s about what is the likely contribution of construction versus schools versus large matches, and that’s where you can then present a menu of likely impacts, and then it’s for policymakers to make the decisions, but we’re not a talking shop or we’re not a suggestion box or a brains trust – it’s very much about dealing with inadequate information and giving best opinion.”

In July, Lewis Hughes, 24, from Romford was given an eight-week suspended sentence after admitting assaulting Whitty in St James’s Park in June.

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