Providing ethics advice in a pandemic, in theory and in practice

Categories: journal article
Categories: journal article
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Title: Providing ethics advice in a pandemic, in theory and in practice: A taxonomy of ethics advice

Authors: James Wilson, Jack Hume, Cian O’Donovan, Melanie Smallman

First published: 28 July 2023


The pandemic significantly raised the stakes for the translation of bioethics insights into policy. The novelty, range and sheer quantity of the ethical problems that needed to be addressed urgently within public policy were unprecedented and required high-bandwidth two-way transfer of insights between academic bioethics and policy. Countries such as the United Kingdom, which do not have a National Ethics Committee, faced particular challenges in how to facilitate this. This paper takes as a case study the brief career of the Ethics Advisory Board (EAB) for the NHS Covid-19 App, which shows both the difficulty and the political complexity of policy-relevant bioethics in a pandemic and how this was exacerbated by the transience and informality of the structures through which ethics advice was delivered. It analyses how and why, after EAB’s demise, the Westminster government increasingly sought to either take its ethics advice in private or to evade ethical scrutiny of its policies altogether. In reflecting on EAB, and these later ethics advice contexts, the article provides a novel framework for analysing ethics advice within democracies, defining four idealised stances: the pure ethicist, the advocate, the ethics arbiter and the critical friend.