In early 2020, UK government ministers stated repeatedly that their COVID-19 policy was 'guided by the science'. At the time, 'the science' was shorthand for 'our scientists', since ministers formed strong relationships with senior government scientific advisors, who relied on regular evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) (Cairney, 2021). Initially, these relationships were akin to those of interest groups: senior advisers were akin to 'core insiders', consulted frequently on multiple issues; SAGE were 'specialist insiders', consulted on niche issues; and, most others were 'peripheral insiders' with minimal influence, or 'outsiders'. Consequently, ministers produced UK COVID-19 policies that were highly consistent with the evidence or advice from their most trusted sources. Over time, UK ministers appeared to diverge more from this scientific advice, and senior advisors sought to establish a greater professional distance between their role (providing evidence) and ministerial roles (to make choices based on multiple sources of evidence and advice).
In this talk, I explore two aspects of this experience. First, can we use established concepts – such as regarding policy communities and interest groups – to capture these developments? Second, does a detailed focus on advice and policy developments over time help to identify a series of phases to compare? In other words, if we are studying COVID-19 policymaking during acute then longer-term crises, are comparisons over time as valuable as comparing political systems?