The government is facing calls for greater transparency over the scientific advice given to ministers on the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak.
Opposition parties said political advisers had no business attending meetings with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). They’ve called for Sage’s deliberations to be opened to wider scrutiny, following the disclosure Boris Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings had been attending meetings. Downing Street angrily dismissed claims that the advice could be politicised.
The row came as the coronavirus lockdown was entering its fifth weekend. There are fears that the expected warm weather for much of the country may see people ignoring social distancing rules.
Credibility and transparency
The controversy over Sage – which will advise ministers on the lifting of lockdown restrictions – came after the Guardian reported that Cummings and data scientist Ben Warner had been present at Sage meetings. Warner worked with Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum.
Downing Street denied that Cummings and Warner were members of the group. It said they were simply seeking to better understand the science involved and how it could inform government decision-making. A No 10 spokesperson said:
Sage provides independent scientific advice to the government. Political advisers have no role in this…
The scientists on Sage are among the most eminent in their fields. It is factually wrong and damaging to sensible public debate to imply their advice is affected by government advisers listening to discussions.
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However, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the disclosure raised “significant questions” about the credibility of government decision-making:
Dominic Cummings has no place on the Government’s scientific advisory group on the coronavirus…
He is a political adviser, not a medical or scientific expert. If the public are to have confidence in the Sage, the Government must make clear Dominic Cummings can no longer participate or attend.
We also need full transparency on who is attending meeting of Sage what is being discussed.
Meanwhile, it emerged that talks have been taking place between ministers and the Premier League on restarting the football season. The decision will be made once the government feels the conditions for easing the lockdown have been met. Sage is to advise ministers on the lifting of lockdown restrictions.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has been in talks with a number of major sports governing bodies. Football is expected to be the first to get the green light behind closed doors to resume matches.
It’s understood that detailed discussions have been taking place with medical officials from Public Health England on the criteria that would have to be met for games to go ahead. A government spokesperson said:
Ministers continue to work with sports governing bodies on how live sporting events can resume in the future.
This can only happen once we have passed the five tests for easing social distancing measures.
Collateral damage of non-Covid deaths
In other developments, the NHS is to launch a new campaign urging people to seek urgent care if they suffer a medical emergency, after visits to A&E dropped by almost 50%. Health officials are worried many people aren’t seeking treatment because they fear contracting coronavirus in hospital, jeopardising their survival and potentially becoming collateral damage to the virus.
The Department of Health said a total of 19,506 patients had died in hospital after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on 23 April, up by 768 from 18,738 the day before. Many more deaths are expected in care homes.
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