Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings has been taking part in meetings of the senior scientists advising the Government on the coronavirus outbreak, it has been reported.
Mr Cummings was among 23 attendees at a key meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on March 23 – the day Mr Johnson announced the nationwide lockdown, according to the Guardian.
Ben Warner, a data scientist who worked with Mr Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum, was also said to have been present.
A former government chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, said he was “shocked” to find that there were political advisers involved in Sage meetings.
“If you are giving science advice, your advice should be free of any political bias. That is just so critically important,” he told the Guardian.
In a strongly worded statement, a No 10 spokesman confirmed that Mr Cummings and Dr Warner had attended or listened in to Sage meetings, but denied they had in any way affected the group’s advice.
“Sage provides independent scientific advice to the Government. Political advisers have no role in this,” the spokesman said.
“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 spokesman said Mr Cummings and Dr Warner had been seeking to better understand the scientific debate around coronavirus, as well as the limits as to how science and data could assist Government decision-making.
“Occasionally they ask questions or offer help when scientists mention problems in Whitehall,” the spokesman said
The Government has never released a list of Sage members or attendees – although individual members can disclose they are part of the group.
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.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the disclosure that Mr Cummings had been attending Sage raised “significant questions” about the credibility of Government decision-making.
“Dominic Cummings has no place on the Government’s scientific advisory group on the coronavirus,” he said.
“He is a political adviser, not a medical or scientific expert. If the public are to have confidence in the Sage, the Government must make clear Dominic Cummings can no longer participate or attend.
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said the disclosure underlined the need for a public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic.
“The public needs to have confidence that it is expert advice that is guiding government decisions, not dubious political advisers. The lack of transparency is an absolute outrage,” he said.
“To get to the truth and to give Boris Johnson the opportunity to answer some serious questions, it is clear that there will need to be an independent inquiry to officially review the Government’s response to the pandemic.”
If it is true that Dominic Cummings attended meetings of SAGE, then the government led by Boris Johnson has utterly corrupted independent scientific advice; but Iâm afraid to say that the scientists who sit on SAGE have allowed themselves to be corrupted, including the CSA/CMO.— richard horton (@richardhorton1) April 24, 2020
Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, tweeted: “If it is true that Dominic Cummings attended meetings of Sage, then the Government led by Boris Johnson has utterly corrupted independent scientific advice.”