Number 10 denies Dominic Cummings was a 'member' of Sage science panel

24 April 2020, 20:50

Boris Johnson's chief scientific advisor is on a the panel advising the government on the coronavirus response, it has been reported
Boris Johnson's chief scientific advisor is on a the panel advising the government on the coronavirus response, it has been reported. Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

The government has denied reports that Dominic Cummings was a "member" of an independent scientific panel advising on the UK's coronavirus response but accepted he had attended some meetings.

The independence of the government's scientific advice on coronavirus was called into question after leaked information seen by the Guardian revealed Mr Cummings had attended Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meetings as early as February.

Sage's purpose is to provide independent scientific advice to government in emergencies during periods of crisis.

But Mr Cummings' presence called into question the government's repeated claim that its response to coronavirus was being "led by science."

Mr Cummings was joined by Ben Warner, a data scientist who ran the campaign model for the Conservative's general election campaign and is understood to have worked with him on the Brexit campaign.

In a strongly worded response to the story, a government spokesperson branded the story as "ludicrous" and said while Mr Cummings had attended Sage meetings he had not participated.

Mr Cummings is Boris Johnson's chief political aide
Mr Cummings is Boris Johnson's chief political aide. Picture: PA

The statement read: "It is not true that Mr Cummings or Dr Warner are 'on' or members of Sage. Mr Cummings and Dr Warner have attended some Sage meetings and listen to some meetings now they are all virtual.

"They do 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 decisions.

"Occasionally they ask questions or offer help when scientists mention problems in Whitehall. Others also listen to meetings without being 'on' or 'a member of' Sage.

"Sage provides independent scientific advice to the government. Political advisers have no role in this.

"The scientists on Sage are among the most eminent in their fields. It is factually wrong and damaging to sensible public debate to imply their advice is affected by government advisers listening to discussions.

"The Prime Minister wants his advisers to understand the scientific debates around Covid as well as they can for obvious reasons.

"From the start the Government has tried hard to integrate scientific advice into its decision-making in a sensible way. It will continue to do so.

"Public confidence in the media has collapsed during this emergency partly because of ludicrous stories such as this."

Mr Cummings was also said to have been among 23 attendees at a key Sage meeting on March 23 - the day Mr Johnson announced the nationwide lockdown.

The attendees of Sage meetings were being kept secret by the government and the minutes have been kept away from public view.

Although the government has never issued a list of those on the panel, individual members can disclose they are part of the group.

But despite calls to reveal who is advising the government, Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance has said their identities will be kept under wraps until the pandemic is over.

His predecessor Sir David King told the newspaper he was "shocked" to hear of the presence of political advisors on SAGE.

In the wake of the story being made public, Labour MPs immediately called for full transparency from No10.

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth posted online tonight: "Why are politically appointed special advisors taking part in what should be independent SAGE deliberations?

"Ministers have repeatedly claimed timing of lockdown was based on science. We need answers & total transparency tonight."

Labour MP David Lammy said: “SAGE is for scientific experts not political advisers. Dominic Cummings must be booted out of the group immediately and never allowed back.”

Diane Abbott wrote: “Dominic Cummings and former data scientist for Vote Leave campaign on Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) Does this explain how “herd immunity” became policy?”

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He said: "If you are giving science advice, your advice should be free of any political bias. That is just so critically important.”

In a letter to Parliament earlier this month, Sir Patrick Vallance, the current chief scientific adviser who chairs Sage, said the decision not to disclose its membership was based on advice from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI).

He said that it helped safeguard the personal security of members while protecting them from "lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence which may hinder their ability to give impartial advice".

However, the chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty - who is also a member of the group, told MPs on Friday that neither he nor Sir Patrick had any objection "in principle" to details of the membership being released.

Giving evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, he said the CPNI advice was based on the fact that Sage was a sub-committee of Cobra - the Government's civil contingencies committee - and sometimes dealt with security-related issues.