Greater Transparency Promised on COVID-19 SAGE Meetings

Peter Russell

April 27, 2020

The Prime Minister promised "maximum possible transparency" in Government deliberations about the future of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

A buoyant Boris Johnson wasted no time on his return to Downing Street from recuperating at Chequers with a morning statement on the steps of Number 10 to demonstrate he was back in charge.

Ministers have faced demands from businesses, Conservative MPs, and the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer for greater clarity on when and how the restrictions would eventually be eased.

Questions have recently been raised about membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), a group that can provide scientific advice in national crises, which has convened twice a week since 22nd January to help inform Government decisions.

Involvement of Dominic Cummings Raises Political Bias Concerns

It emerged that Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson's controversial adviser, has attended some meetings of SAGE, provoking concerns that political bias could creep into the group's advice to COBRA, the Government's emergency committee.

Those worries reached a head last Friday when The Guardian questioned whether the inclusion of Mr Cummings alongside Ben Warner, a data scientist who worked with him on the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit, jeopardised the independence of the group's scientific advice.

In his statement earlier today, Mr Johnson said: "I want to share all our working and our thinking, my thinking, with you the British people, and of course, we will be relying as ever on the science to inform us, as we have from the beginning."

Politicians and health officials have frequently referred to SAGE throughout the current pandemic. In the media, it is often referred to as a "secret" scientific organisation.

Its existence and aspects of its role, membership, and previous work are readily accessible on the Government's website.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, it last sat in August 2019 in response to the potential breach of Toddbrook Reservoir during severe flooding. Minutes of that meeting, along with summaries of meetings during the Zika outbreak of 2016 and the Ebola outbreak of 2014 are also in the public domain.

Science Media Briefing on SAGE

Earlier today, SAGE's current Chair, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's chief scientific adviser, gave a media briefing through the Science Media Centre to specialist journalists.

Sir Patrick, a familiar presence at the daily Downing Street COVID-19 press conferences, confirmed the presence at meetings of officials from Whitehall, including those from the Prime Minister's office, "who listen in to the meetings and can ask questions if they wish to" but were "not part of the general discussion".

Sir Mark Walport, Sir Patrick's predecessor from 2013 to 17, who has attended some recent SAGE meetings, told the same briefing: "There have always been officials in the room, and in my experience they've never interfered. And I can see no evidence of any influence at all now."

However, Sir David King, who served as chief scientific officer from 2000 to 2007, said he was worried that the Prime Minister could be advised about conclusions of SAGE by his adviser rather than the scientific community. He told Sky News : "This shouldn't be capable of being interpreted by a person who wears a strongly political hat."

Sir David said the issue of transparency had been lost by the Government.

"If you want to gain the trust of the public, you must put things into the public domain," he said. "For example, the membership of SAGE – it's been leaked now and we've got a very comprehensive listing of the members.

"There is a suspicion that it wasn't being put into the public domain to keep Dominic Cummings' name out of it."

Sir Patrick told today's briefing that the names of SAGE participants were not normally published until after any particular crisis was over. However, he added, that because the COVID-19 pandemic was long-running, "I'm in favour of getting those names out."

Each SAGE meeting might typically involve around 20 scientists, including personnel from agencies such as the NHS and Public Health England.

Experts were likely to be leaders in their field who were best placed to provide high quality and trusted advice.

However, participants might vary between meetings "to try to avoid 'group think'," according to Sir Patrick.

A list of those who have attended SAGE meetings during the pandemic might number around 100, and would be published "shortly", he said.

Sir Patrick added that some individuals might choose not to be named on the grounds of their personal security.

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