It is "absolutely essential" that the government improves how it communicates risk and uncertainty to the public and the media, say MPs, reporting on Ministers' handling of the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic.

On July 16, 2009, when Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson held a press briefing that led to media reports suggesting that in a "worst-case scenario" 65,000 people in the UK could die from swine flu, the number of deaths at that time actually stood at around 30 and, by the time the pandemic was over in April 2010, had reached 460 in total, says a report published today by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on the use of scientific advice and evidence in emergencies.

The "reasonable worst-case scenario" of around 65,000 deaths communicated by the government was useful for emergency responders such as the NHS but led to sensationalised media reporting, say the MPs, who suggest that it would be better for the government to establish a "most probable scenario" with the public. Improvements in how risk and uncertainty are presented to the public and media are "absolutely essential for allaying fears," they add.

It is equally - if not more - important for central government to communicate effectively with emergency responders, say the Committee members, who had been told by the British Medical Association (BMA) that doctors had felt "overwhelmed" by the volume of information about the swine flu pandemic issued by various bodies, including government, and that key advice had been lost within the large quantity of emails received, which often duplicated information.

The Committee suggests instead that a single portal of information should be set up for every emergency along the lines of in the US, for use by the public as well as emergency responders. This should be the primary source of all information, linking to other websites as necessary.

The swine flu pandemic was also the first emergency in the UK for which a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was convened to advise the government, and the MPs have concerns about the operations of such groups. Their report finds that SAGEs  "tended towards an unnecessarily secretive way of working, thus closing doors to the wider scientific community, and did not appear to adhere to any published guidance or code of conduct.” 

A SAGE "should not be given carte blanche to operate however it pleases simply because an emergency is occurring,” say the MPs, and they call on the government to provide greater clarification as to the codes, principles and guidance which cover the operations of such groups. "The Government Office for Science should take responsibility for ensuring that all future SAGEs operate in a more organised, transparent and accessible manner and adhere to a published code - existing or new," they add.

Experience with the swine flu pandemic also points to the need for a better international mechanism for data-sharing, particularly for raw epidemiological data, say the MPs, and they suggest that the UK should propose the formation of an international working group within the World Health Organisation (WHO) to discuss how epidemiological data can be shared effectively between countries in the run-up to a new pandemic.

As well as the H1N1 pandemic, the Committee also examined the role played by scientific advice and evidence in the government’s handling of the April 2010 volcanic ash disruption, space weather and cyber attacks. The experience has, they say, left them with the impression that “while science is used effectively to aid the response to emergencies, the government’s attitude to scientific advice is that it is something to reach for once an emergency happens, not a key factor for consideration from the start of the planning process." 

"This is not trivial," the MPs stress, concluding: "we urge the government to do better at embedding scientific advice and an evidence-based approach in risk assessment and policy processes before emergencies occur."