The Daily Telegraph
Cummings at meetings of secret scientific advisory group
DOMINIC CUMMINGS, the Prime Minister’s senior aide, was among those at a meeting of the secret committee of scientists that advises ministers on how to tackle the coronavirus on the day the Government announced the lockdown, it has emerged.
The disclosure will add to concerns that the scientific advice being given by those attending the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) might be being subjected to political pressure.
As calls intensify for the Government to fully disclose the identities of those on Sage, The Daily Telegraph today names more than a dozen of its members. Some are known to have attended a number of Sage meetings dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, others attended less often, perhaps only a single meeting.
Mr Cummings is understood to have attended several meetings, including the one on March 23, the day Boris Johnson announced the lockdown following scientific advice on the need for stringent measures to limit deaths.
The Government has so far refused to name any of those on Sage but pressure on it to do so increased yesterday.
Adding his own voice to the call for openness, Prof Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, said his colleague Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, felt the same. “Neither of us have any problem in principle with the names being made public,” he said.
However, Sir Patrick has separately told MPS that disclosing the list of Sage members could leave them vulnerable to outside lobbying interests. A number of those on the committee and its sub-committees already have links to pharmaceutical firms that could be perceived as conflicts of interests.
Those on the Sage committee include Prof John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) who sits on Sage as well as two of its subcommittees. His partner, Jeanne Pimenta, works for the pharmaceutical giant Glaxosmithkline (GSK) and also holds shares in the company. Prof Edmunds said that his partner had recently resigned from GSK and was working out her notice.
Others on Sage include Prof Graham Medley, also at LSHTM, Peter Horby, Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health at Oxford University, Neil Ferguson, mathematical
modeller at Imperial College, Dr Jim Mcmenamin of Health Protection Scotland, Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England, and Ian Diamond, head of the Government Statistical Service.
Sir Patrick claimed in a letter to MPS that the Government does not disclose membership of Sage partly to protect “them from lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence which may hinder their ability to give impartial advice”.
Chi Onwurah, the shadow science minister, said: “There will already be lobbying going on and the response to lobbying is greater transparency, not less.”
Lord O’donnell, the long-serving former cabinet secretary, told the BBC Today programme: “We always used to publish membership of ministerial committees. I don’t see any reason why we can’t list the people [on Sage].”
Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, added: “I do not see or understand the secrecy around who the science adviser is getting advice from. I think it would be so important to gain the trust of the public by acting openly. It’s very simple, but at the moment we are not privy to the discussions.”
Prof Whitty told MPS on the science and technology select committee yesterday that he and Sir Patrick had no objection themselves to the names being released “in principle” but that the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure had said the names should not be disclosed.
He said this was because some non Covid-19 meetings of Sage may occasionally involve matters of national security so “the principle needed to be thought through quite carefully.” But the calls for transparency were echoed by several senior figures on Sage and its sub-committees – the very people the Government claims it wants to “protect”. They said it was “counterproductive” to keep their identities private, and that the Government should publish their names in order to shoreup public trust.
Prof Susan Michie, who has attended one Sage meeting and sits on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behavioural Science, or “SPI-B” – one of four highly influential committees that feeds into Sage, told The Telegraph that she has spoken out on the issue.
“Given openness and transparency are important for trust, and trust is important for adherence to Government advice, it makes sense to me to publish names and papers agreed by the committees in a timely manner,” she said.
A few Sage members told The Telegraph that they had faced threats from the public and a couple said that as a result they preferred not to be named.
However, others – such as Prof Robert Dingwall, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) – said they supported transparency regardless. “I think, as a matter of principle, that membership of such advisory groups should be in the public domain.”
The Government has repeatedly refused to disclose the membership of SPI-B or name the five members of the Covid-19 Clinical Information Network, another of the four sub-committees referred to as CO-CIN, which is kept so secret it is not even referred to on Sage’s website. It does, however, publish the full membership of NERVTAG, along with register of interests.
Prof Edmunds is one of those who fully disclosed his interests, including his partner’s employment and shares, in the register when it was last updated in November 2018. It used to publish the membership of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) but deleted the page three weeks ago.
The lack of complete transparency has echoes of the way the World Health Organisation (WHO) operated during the 2009 swine flu crisis, when it refused to disclose the names of the scientists it relied on for advice. It claimed that it had to keep the membership secret in order to protect them from undue pressure, and insisted that it had vetted them.
A spokesman for No10 said Mr Cummings had attended some Sage meetings and listened to others. They added: “He did this in order to understand better the scientific debates concerning this emergency and also to understand better the limits of how science and data can help Government.”
A Government spokesman said: “During this crisis, the Government has rightly consulted expert advisers.
“It is wrong and unfair to those advisers to suggest that scientific knowledge and experience is being shared for any other reason than to aid the national effort to beat this virus.
“The decision to not disclose Sage membership is based upon advice from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure and is in line with the standard procedure for COBR [Cobra] meetings, to which Sage gives advice.
“This is to safeguard individual members’ personal security and protect them from lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence which may hinder their ability to give impartial advice.”