The journalist-run, intelligence-linked operation that warped British pandemic policy
Presented as an independent voice for “unbiased” scientific advice, iSAGE provided a channel for media spinmeisters, spies and psy-op specialists to influence Britain’s pandemic policy without accountability. Leaked internal emails show members fretting over its unethical methods.
Throughout Britain’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, a lobbying group known as the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (iSAGE) served as a key driving force behind the government’s most draconian lockdown policies.
While it presented itself as a non-governmental organization composed of forward-thinking health experts, The Grayzone can reveal iSAGE not only maintains an array of ties to the British security state, while relying largely on political, rather than scientific, considerations when crafting policy recommendations.
With Winter ahead in Europe and calls for the reimposition of COVID-19 restrictions growing once again — not least from iSAGE itself — the outfit’s endeavors provide a disturbing look at the role of the security state and mainstream media in corrupting British public health policy.
Nearly three years since the world first heard of COVID-19, societies across the globe are still reeling from prolonged lockdowns and harsh social restrictions, which many governments implemented in order to supposedly “stop the spread” of the virus. Britain is no exception, and while the full long-term impact of such measures remains unknown, some grueling effects are already painfully apparent.
Patients receiving care for cancer, cardiovascular, and respiratory disease were prevented from accessing routine treatment; rates of clinical depression and mobile phone addiction among university students skyrocketed; adults of all ages reported worsening mental health conditions; and the number of Britons seeking help for drug addiction increased by 81% between 2020 and 2021.
Meanwhile, school closures exposed Britain’s youth to food insecurity and increased likelihood of falling victim to domestic abuse, while the rapid digitization of education further widened learning gaps between wealthy and low-income students in the country.
“We were mesmerized by the once-in-a-century scale of the emergency and succeeded only in making a crisis even worse. In short, we panicked,” lamented Professor Mark Woolhouse, an Edinburgh University epidemiologist, in January 2022.
As with many contemporary critics of the British government’s initial “Zero COVID” strategy, Woolhouse argued a targeted response to protect the most vulnerable members of society, such as the elderly, would have done more to curb Britain’s death toll than blanket, nationwide lockdowns.
“This was an epidemic crying out for a precision public health approach and it got the opposite,” he explained.
Behind some of the most socially destructive pandemic policies implemented by the British government was iSAGE, a shady organization founded by a Russia-obsessed Guardian pundit and advised by spies, behavioral psychologists and media influencers without backgrounds in science or medicine.
Founded in May 2020 by David King, former chief scientific adviser to Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, iSAGE initially set out to agitate for greater transparency around state health policy, while providing “robust, unbiased advice” to the public and government. Yet it rapidly transformed into a powerful, wholly unaccountable lobbying group, aggressively pushing for “Zero COVID” measures.
For almost two years, iSAGE members were a fixture in both British and international media. Senior politicians and pundits effusively endorsed the group’s pronouncements on the pandemic, and its weekly YouTube briefings racked up tens of thousands of views. Its representatives used their popular platforms to call for extensive control and suppression measures, including contact tracing, mass testing, border quarantines, lockdowns, and the implementation of mitigation software in order to stop the transmission of COVID-19.
Confusion regarding iSAGE’s name, given its obvious similarity to the British government’s official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), only increased the group’s prominence. Very quickly after its launch, iSAGE began to not only work in parallel with its government namesake, but supplant it in the public mind.
Despite its enormous influence, iSAGE and its members have largely avoided public scrutiny. Little is known about the forces guiding and shaping its activities, or whether its representatives are advancing an ulterior agenda at odds with their stated commitment to providing “unbiased” scientific advice.
iSAGE pushes lockdowns “without sufficient scientific expertise or scientific evidence to inform it”
It was on iSAGE’s official launch date in May 2020 that its founding objective of securing publication of the identities of SAGE, and its papers, was achieved. Previously, the body’s composition and the evidence underpinning its decisions was entirely hidden from public view, which stoked significant controversy, particularly given its initial heel-dragging over the implementation of protective COVID-19 measures.
Emboldened by this immediate success, former iSAGE member Allyson Pollock claims the group “rapidly moved away” from its initial transparency agenda “to wanting to make policy” itself. Unknown to the public at the time, iSAGE’s transformation from government watchdog project into premier public health policy-making activist group prompted an internal revolt.
“Often, [iSAGE] ended up advocating things when it hadn’t sufficiently thought through the uncertainties in the evidence and the potential for harm,” Pollock, who worked as a clinical professor of public health at Newcastle University, alleges. She cites “prolonged lockdowns, school closures, and mass testing,” as examples of iSAGE’s misguided recommendations.
According to Pollock, the group offered policy advice “sometimes without sufficient scientific expertise or scientific evidence to inform it.” She expressed vehement opposition when the group officially adopted its “Zero COVID” position in July 2020, believing it lacked any basis in science. Two months later, the group declined to renew her membership.
iSAGE’s push for Zero COVID appeared oddly timed, and the group itself acknowledged total eradication of a disease had only ever been achieved once in history, in the case of smallpox. Britain was at that point beginning to reopen after a four-month lockdown, in line with SAGE advice. In theory though, as iSAGE was an entirely separate entity from SAGE, it was free to advocate for whatever mitigation strategies it deemed appropriate.
In practice though, an overlap in the membership of both bodies as well as their virtually identical names blurred lines between the two groups. British government chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance claims he explicitly warned iSAGE founder David King against using any derivation of “SAGE” for the title of his new group, believing it would puzzle and mislead the public.
Despite apparently pledging to not emulate the name, King did so anyway. The “Independent” prefix was even more problematic, as it clearly implied that SAGE was not a trustworthy, autonomous organization, while iSAGE issued impartial, more credible advice by contrast.
iSAGE gathers influence by fueling confusion
As predicted, the two groups’ duplicate names muddied the waters on public and government messaging around COVID-19, leading to numerous troubling — if not outright dangerous — blunders on the part of journalists, pundits, and elected lawmakers alike.
SAGE member Ian Boyd claims such chaos was intentional. In October 2021, he told The British Medical Journal the two groups’ names “created confusion and was a device used by those organising [iSAGE] to set up unnecessary friction.” In the same article, another academic suggested iSAGE’s title implied the body was “somehow more authoritative than it actually is.”
Public disorientation was compounded by the fact that several members of SAGE also moonlighted as iSAGE experts. Take the example of Susan Michie, a left-wing political activist and self-styled “behavioural change” expert who served with both iSAGE and SAGE, advising the secretive governmental SPI-B council of behavioral psychologists that fear-mongered the public into compliance with official pandemic policy. Media reports on Michie almost universally referred to her simply as a “SAGE scientist,” creating the impression that her comments represented the British government’s official position.
Michie became a symbol of iSAGE’s advocacy for a permanent biomedical security state. During a June 2021 interview, she argued that social distancing and mask mandates should “continue forever.”
At no point did the mainstream British media acknowledge that Michie’s background did not necessarily qualify her to recommend policy for a public health crisis. Rather, a clinical psychologist represented precisely the type of character who could be called upon to manipulate the public into accepting extreme lockdowns.
Michie was not the only iSAGE representative that news outlets presented as a “scientist” despite an apparent lack of relevant credentials in epidemiology, virology, or public health management. Another long-time media favorite was iSAGE mathematician Christina Pagel, who was promoted as a credible expert despite her routinely misreading and misrepresenting data.
On the flip side, mainstream media wrongly characterized members of iSAGE who were not part of SAGE as representatives of the latter on numerous occasions. Similarly, the press erroneously presented iSAGE recommendations as official SAGE advice more than once.
In May 2020, Labour party deputy leader Angela Rayner mistakenly declared that SAGE had warned against the planned June 1st reopening of schools as “too soon,” implying the British government was recklessly discounting recommendations from its own in-house scientific advisors. She was in fact referring to a report produced by iSAGE, not SAGE.
Conversely, SAGE’s own research cautioned that blanket school closures would result in children experiencing “a shock to their education which will persist and affect their educational and work outcomes for the rest of their lives.” It predicted that extended periods of home learning would gravely deepen inequalities between pupils and leave early-stage learning and behavioral disorders undetected.
As scheduled, England began to reopen schools in September 2020, although they were shut down once again that December. Independent SAGE representatives then steadfastly opposed mass reopenings in Spring 2021, and regularly criticised the move for months thereafter.
In October that year, a United Nations report concluded countless children worldwide had been harshly impacted emotionally and psychologically by school closures, leading to greatly increased “fear and stress, anxiety, depression, anger, irritability, inattention” as well as “irregular physical activity and sleep patterns.” A total confirmation of SAGE’s initial warnings against blanket school closures.
The UN’s withering judgement may explain why iSAGE representatives have since deleted social media posts in which they aggressively advocated for keeping children out of classrooms until COVID-19 was completely eradicated. Still, some evidence of their advocacy remains extant today, including a July 2020 livestream on mask mandates billed as a “public consultation.”
“I don’t believe schools should be opened until we’ve approached Zero COVID. This is a big challenge,” David King declared in that discussion. “It means, over to the government, ‘please lock us down, manage the disease, bring it right down to roughly a level of one in a million people,’ and we’ll manage to open schools much more safely.”
Not-so-Independent SAGE riddled with conflicts of interest
It was not until July 2021 the British media began probing into the scientific collective with any critical scrutiny. That month, The Daily Telegraph revealed a shadowy outfit called The Citizens was responsible for establishing iSAGE.
The Citizens was itself led by Carole Cadwalladr, the Russia-obsessed Guardian columnist who won a series of high profile awards for reporting claiming the data firm SCL-Cambridge Analytica served as a channel for Russian meddling in the Brexit vote. As Alex Rubinstein reported for The Grayzone, Cadwalladr’s reporting was comprehensively discredited by a 2020 British parliamentary report that found no evidence whatsoever of Russian involvement in Brexit.
In response to the revelation that The Citizens had spawned iSAGE, Cadwalladr insisted The Citizens’ connection to the group had been publicly stated on iSAGE’s website since its launch. Though her claim was technically accurate, the link had never been acknowledged in media appearances by iSAGE members, let alone by Cadwalladr herself. What’s more, the relevant passage on iSAGE’s website merely refers to The Citizens as a “small support team…helping Independent SAGE with its public events and media activities.”
This characterization significantly downplays the scale and nature of the relationship between The Citizens and iSAGE. It was around the time of the Telegraph exposé that Cadwalladr updated her own Twitter profile to describe herself as a “cofounder” of The Citizens, the “parent” of iSAGE. Meanwhile, The Citizens’ Twitter characterizes itself as iSAGE’s “founder and producer.”
Official records of a June 2020 meeting of iSAGE’s ‘Behavioural Advisory Group’ show the organization received significant direction and assistance from another unacknowledged source. Zack King, representative of PR firm Firstlight Group, took a lead role in proceedings, introducing “the work of Independent SAGE to date,” and leading a dedicated discussion on press relations.
Along the way, King stressed that he and Cadwalladr “handled press issues,” and iSAGE “can use both of them” if the organization’s behavioral scientists wanted to “involve” the media in its activities.
“Zack and Carole work together on press side. Most press relations are undertaken via Zack and his PR firm,” the minutes state.
In January the next year, a blog titled, “Holding the government to account” was published on Firstlight’s website, laying out the “ambitious media plan” the company pursued in order to “build the group’s profile as quickly as possible” and “grow the group’s influence” upon launch. The proposal called for 36 weekly media and public briefings and “countless one-to-one interviews and bylines.”
Within six months, iSAGE was “agenda-setting,” Firstlight boasted, “and this publicity empowered them to drive change,” including its “Zero COVID” approach “being adopted by parts of the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish devolved governments.” At no point was it disclosed that Zack King is the son of iSAGE chief David King, a fact the former is keen to conceal.
Leaked iSAGE communications reviewed by The Grayzone indicate Firstlight was rewarded handsomely for its media manipulation. In late May 2020, when Cadwalladr proposed setting up a crowd-funder for the operation, iSAGE member Allyson Pollock said she was growing “uneasy” about the initiative. She was “extremely anxious” about seeking such financing for a “short-term project,” and proposed raising funds via other non-public means, even offering to contribute to expenses herself.
Read the leaked iSAGE emails here.
Pollock’s concerns were extensive. There was no clarity on what the money was needed for “and how much and for [how] long and exactly who for,” she complained, especially given that iSAGE members were working pro bono. Further, the group had collectively decided to recruit resident academics with stable incomes as well as volunteers living off of guaranteed government financial support.
“Everyone on the committee is in employment and some of us are on very good salaries. So, should we not be contributing if we need to…that would be public spirited and in the spirit of what we are doing,” Pollock fretted. “The public are very hard pressed at the moment and I don’t feel at all comfortable crowdfunding.”
David King attempted to reassure Pollock that any sums received would not be used to enrich iSAGE members, but to instead cover invoices to the PR firm, Firstlight. Remuneration for “professional expertise” would be solicited elsewhere, he promised.
Cadwalladr also weighed in, remarking that Pollock “won’t be aware of the behind-the-scenes work that has been involved in getting the project this far,” including “the unavoidable expense involved particularly in handling the media.” What services those costs would have covered in the midst of a national lockdown remains unclear.
That June, The Citizens launched a dedicated crowdfunder for iSAGE which raised £60,000. An accompanying blurb was vague on how donations would be spent, merely stating it would help the organisation “keep following the science.” No mention was made of bankrolling a wide-ranging media blitz, courtesy of the son of iSAGE’s founder.
The Citizens rakes in donations from regime change cut-out Omidyar
The decision by iSage to launch a fundraising campaign while the British public suffered widespread unemployment, hardship and financial uncertainty – and despite wholly reasonable and legitimate internal dissent – is rendered all the more perverse given The Citizens has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Luminate.
As Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal documented in an investigation with Alex Rubinstein, Luminate is an integral component of intelligence-linked US oligarch Pierre Omidyar’s global propaganda and regime change network.
In 2020, Luminate gifted The Citizens $150,000 to develop the “Real Facebook Oversight Board”, and $300,000 ostensibly to produce “impact journalism to hold government and big tech to account.” Cadwalladr also claims the CIA-connected Ford Foundation provided some support, although no record of the donation is recorded on the Foundation’s website.
A 2016 report on Omidyar Network activities in West Africa underlines how the billionaire’s media assets are used to further his commercial interests. One passage refers to “converting passive readers to active citizens” by sponsoring the publication of “politically opportunistic” content in order to “motivate citizens and government to act.” The report went on to cite “recent, major successes” the billionaire’s network had enjoyed in Nigeria, where Omidyar effectively owns the local tech sector.
“With the spectre of potential citizen mobilization looming in politicians’ minds, media outlets also have the potential to elicit government response directly,” the report boasted. “In some cases…government was motivated to act in order to prevent citizen action [emphasis added], instead of in response to it.”
Between March and July 2020, Omidyar’s personal wealth grew by $9 billion, in no small part due to the “Covid-proof” business interests he had fostered around the globe. These included expansive investments in ed-tech, digital health and online content, which became major growth industries due to lockdown policies.
By contrast, it’s difficult to identify how The Citizens put its lavish Luminate grants to work. Omidyar was clearly happy with the results, however, giving the organisation another $300,000 in 2021.
Today, the Real Facebook Oversight Board consists of an infrequently updated Medium blog with 225 followers. There is no sign either of any “impact journalism” from The Citizens, save for a long-dormant Substack, and legal action against the British government over its purported failure to investigate Russian interference in elections.
Despite their lavish Omidyar financing, Cadwalladr’s group again turned to crowdfunding for that effort, raising tens of thousands from the public before its legal push was thrown out by a High Court judge as the case was “inarguable.”
Discredited former MI6 agent Christopher Steele advises iSAGE
The Citizens’ website, which has been “under construction” for most of its existence, once featured a dedicated profile of disgraced former MI6 spy and former FBI contractor Christopher Steele. And The Citizens founder Cadwalladr has been a fervent promoter of the intelligence huckster, lionizing him despite his ‘Trump-Russia’ dossier having been comprehensively exposed as a fraud compiled with rumors and tall tales fed to him by a single dubious source for cash.
In email exchanges with The Grayzone, Zack King, the PR agent and son of iSAGE’s founder, initially contended The Citizens “drew on a wide and diverse collection of unpaid advisors before it launched.” Christopher Steele was among them, though according to King, he “never played any active or other role” in The Citizens or iSAGE.
Requests for details on the services Steele provided for The Citizens before its public inauguration were ignored. When asked why the group’s website featured his profile if he was no longer involved in any capacity, King revealed Steele was actually part of “a network of pro-bono advisors we can call upon as needed.” He therefore implied the former spook could provide indeterminate support at any time to The Citizens, and perhaps iSage as well.
Steele’s intimate but mysterious involvement with an influential outfit that shaped government policy and public perceptions on COVID-19 is troubling, given the power grab that British security and intelligence services carried out under cover of pandemic prevention.
Britain’s security state merges with the public health sector under cover of tracking Covid
In May 2020, the same month iSAGE was launched, London rolled out an initiative called the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC). The JBC was advertised as a state-of-the-art system that provided “evidence-based, objective analysis to inform local and national decision-making in response to COVID19 outbreaks.” Purportedly tracking the virus’ spread in real-time, its coronavirus “alert level” was directly modeled on the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre’s “traffic light” system, established in 2003.
JBC was first led by Tom Hurd, a veteran intelligence official who months earlier had been put forward as the likely next MI6 chief. Hurd soon returned to running counter-terrorism for the Home Office, however, and was replaced by senior GCHQ operative Clare Gardiner. Her appointment reportedly came at the behest of Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, GCHQ’s former Director of Strategy.
At the time, concerns were rising about the growing role of intelligence service personnel in managing the pandemic, particularly given their abject failure to sound any alarm on COVID-19 before it circulated among the general public. But any resistance to the integration of the security state with the public health sector were comprehensively shunted aside, when the British government replaced Public Health England with the Health Security Agency, of which the JBC became a subdivision.
Despite the body’s enormous and constantly expanding power, the opaque JBC has entirely eluded scrutiny from British media since its launch. Its membership, the minutes of its meetings, data, analysis, and arguments all remain a secret, while it maintains the power to impose restrictions if not outright lockdowns without explanation or warning at any time.
In October 2020, as Britain edged towards a second national shutdown, parliamentarians demanded the publication of JBC’s deliberations, evidence sources, and key personnel be published. On each point, they were shut down by the government. In justifying its refusal to disclose members’ identities, Downing Street claimed the Centre is “largely staffed by civil servants,” meaning it was “not appropriate” to name them.
Given that the veteran GCHQ spy Clare Gardiner was merely referred to as a “senior civil servant” in an official press release announcing her appointment to lead JBC, the question must be asked: is the center “largely staffed” by intelligence operatives?
Gardiner left her post in mid-June 2021 without any official announcement, and the position has been vacant ever since. At least, no replacement has been publicly mentioned, and no one has asked officials for clarity. Given the enormous clout exerted by the body to this day, it is staggering that not one single journalist or campaigner has demanded answers.
Indeed, contrary to their professed, principled commitment to scientific transparency, and their initial calls to break the wall of official silence surrounding the British government’s scientific advisory group’s composition and thinking, iSAGE and The Citizens have made no attempt to pressure the government to release any information on the JBC or Health Security Agency.
As we will see in further installments in this investigation, leaked emails absolutely debunk the stated commitment by iSAGE and The Citizens to “following the science.”