A more transparent approach is needed towards the scientific group convened to advise the government in times of emergency, scientists and policy experts say. One warned that recent revelations could mean Sage potentially gave “flawed” advice.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) became embroiled in controversy on 24 April, when it emerged Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings had attended meetings.
Sage is intended to provide technical and scientific advice and remain strictly politically neutral during national crises.
It does not disclose the names of the scientists involved beyond that of its chairman – currently chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
A list of names leaked to the Guardian revealed Cummings – already a controversial figure for his role in the Vote Leave campaign – had attended a Sage meeting on March 23.
His presence and that of data scientist Ben Warner, who also worked on the Vote Leave campaign, caused outrage in many quarters for fear politics could be affecting the quality of the resulting advice.
Dr Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the fact of Cummings’ attendance without the public knowing his level of involvement could taint the advice Sage has given so far.
Senior civil servants invited to attend, including the government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, are permitted to ask questions but must submit them in writing in advance.
Hunter, who also sits on a number of World Health Organisation (WHO) committees, said it was not clear if Cummings was subject to the same restraints.
He said: “If he wasn’t and he was contributing to the discussion, then that means we need to be very cautious about the conclusions of Sage.
“Because whether or not he did influence the outcomes we can’t know for certain, and therefore the validity of the advice coming out of the committee might be flawed.
“It has been pointed out quite a lot in the press that a lot of the advice and policies that we have had over Covid-19 has differed quite markedly from advice from international agencies.
“We need to be sure there wasn’t undue political influence at the point those decisions were being taken.”
Alex Thomas, programme director at governance think tank The Institute for Government, also thinks it is the lack of transparency around Sage rather than Cummings’ presence that is the biggest problem.
He said it would be unusual for a representative for Number 10 to have full membership at a meeting but added: “It is okay for an adviser to a minister or the prime minister to attend meetings like that, but – and it is an important but – we need more transparency about how all of these meetings are working in terms of the advice that is generated.
“(It would mean) we spend less time debating and commenting about who is at these meetings and focusing on process and more time focusing on the substances.”
One of the reasons given for not publishing the names of those involved is to protect them from lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence.
Thomas, who spent 17 years with the civil service, thinks the risk of lobbyists clouding the judgement of those involved is overblown.
“As ever with things like this you are balancing different pros and cons and, on balance, my view, given the importance and the public interest attached to those decisions, it is better to be open,” he said.
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?