The Daily Telegraph

Cum­mings at meet­ings of se­cret sci­en­tific ad­vi­sory group

- By In­ves­ti­ga­tions Team

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.”

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