The prime minister’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings, and a data scientist he worked with on the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit are facing a backlash after it was announced that they are on the secret scientific group advising the government on the coronavirus pandemic.
Boris Johnson, who returns to work on Monday, is facing cross-party calls to stop Mr Cummings from attending meetings of the secret scientific group, as demands grow for the committee’s deliberations to be made public.
Multiple attendees are reported to have said that both Cummings and Warner have been attending meetings since February and there are questions around the transparency of the group and the independence of its scientific advice.
The former Brexit secretary, David Davis, is among those calling for Dominic Cummings and Ben Warner, who ran the Tories’ private election computer model, to be prevented from attending future meetings.
In a statement provided by Downing Street, released earlier in the week, a government spokesperson said that expert participants often vary for each meeting according to the expertise required and added that a number of representatives from government departments and No 10 attend as well.
Downing Street declined to say how many Sage meetings Cummings and Warner attended, or whether any other political advisers took part.
Late on Friday, Downing Street released a second statement saying that it was not true that Mr Cummings or Dr Warner are ‘on’ or members of Sage.
It added: “Mr Cummings and Dr Warner have attended some Sage meetings and listen to some meetings now they are all virtual. Occasionally they ask questions or offer help when scientists mention problems in Whitehall.
The statement suggested that the public’s confidence has collapsed due to “ludacrious stories”, reiterating that Sage only provides independent scientific advice to the government and that political advisers have no role in the decision making process.
In a letter to parliament this month, Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, who chairs Sage, said the “decision not to disclose” membership of the committee was to safeguard individual members’ personal security and protect them from lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence. He added that it was also based on advice from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure. Who is Sage and what do they do? The Science Advisory Group for Emergencies, is a formal part of the UK government’s emergency response structure. It’s a subcommittee of COBR, which stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (popularly referred to as COBRA).
When Sage is called, it is the job of the Government Office for Science to bring together the necessary range of expertise to formulate advice to COBR. It also only exists to support COBR, so when emergencies move from response to recovery it tends to stand down.
While core members of the committee, such as Whitty, attend all meetings, other clinical experts, scientists and epidemiologists do not attend every meeting, but can be asked to join in on a rotating basis to provide specific advice. Sage tends to be guided by specific questions that they are asked to consider by the Cabinet Office’s emergency Cobra meetings.
Sage’s job is to respond to questions from COBR. In some instances, these can be quite specific or very broad. In the case of the coronavirus, the complexity of the response has resulted in the group relying on other experts to help with formulating its advice. For example, it is using the new and emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling in the Department for Health and Social Care, and the independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours.
These groups, which have deep specialists in various important aspects of disease control as their members, many of whom come from universities, have been thinking about pandemics for many years. Some of them run computer models of how the disease might spread.
Part of Sage’s job is to integrate the information from these sources and of augmenting advice where necessary if it recognises any gaps.However, the inclusion of Cummings and Warner is raising questions over whether the structure of the government’s scientific advisory process is free from political interference.
A source in Downing Street said that in March Cummings was playing a commanding role in responding to the Covid-19 outbreak. Sage is an important feature of most emergencies in some form, especially during the early response phase. It will, in most cases set out the scientific evidence and will often define the most appropriate options. However, the question remains whether their advice and course of action will be influenced based on the agenda of Cummings and Warner, who are known for influencing and shaping political agendas.
Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England medical director and a member of Sage has defended the group and said that he is confident that what happens in the committee is scientific discussion involving the scientists and experts who are members of Sage. Adding that discussions are around a variety of topics that are evidence based and conclusions are drawn from that evidence which is then shared with government.