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For Boris Johnson’s Science Advisers, Pressure, Anxieties and ‘Pastoral Support’


The group’s academic firepower is impressive: It includes experts in fields from virology to behavioral science, from labs at Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

But transparency brought its own set of challenges. The role the scientists played in Britain’s dilatory response to the virus has come under sharper scrutiny, especially because Mr. Johnson and his ministers repeatedly claim to be “guided by the science” in imposing or relaxing lockdowns. Some scientists worry that Mr. Johnson is setting them up to take the blame for the death toll, which now exceeds 43,000.

As the group’s work has come increasingly into the public eye, the members’ advice is now second-guessed on social media. Their academic quarrels are hinted at in the minutes of their meetings. And as Dr. Ferguson’s indiscretions showed, not even their private lives are off limits.

“It was utterly horrible to see what happened to him,” said Julia Gog, a professor of mathematical biology at the University of Cambridge. “It was also extremely unsettling to other modelers, especially to junior scientists. It was a huge shock to see one of our colleagues treated in this way, and it certainly had an effect on the researchers.”

Dr. Gog described a pressure-cooker atmosphere, in which the scientists are handed complex assignments on very tight deadlines and have to make recommendations in a rapidly changing environment — all while holding down their day jobs and dealing with the stresses of the lockdown in their personal lives.

“I am desperately worried about the well-being of lots of the scientists involved,” Dr. Gog said. “It has been so immersive. You can’t get away. Even when you are trying to not be working, everything on the news is this, everything anyone wants to talk about, and your life is also controlled by this.”

Academics relish debating with their colleagues. But debating while on a government panel in the heat of a public-health emergency is another matter. Members of SAGE said they had fierce arguments over whether to recommend that the government urge people to wear face masks. A glimpse of that back-and-forth is evident in the minutes.

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