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Thu, 9 July 2020

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By IKEA

Coronavirus: No 10 under pressure to reveal full Sage advisers list amid row over Dominic Cummings’ role

Coronavirus: No 10 under pressure to reveal full Sage advisers list amid row over Dominic Cummings’ role

Number 10 has rejected suggestions Dominic Cummings is a member of the Sage committee.

4 min read

Number 10 is being urged to shed more light on the Government’s top coronavirus advisory committee amid a row over Dominic Cummings’ attendance of key meetings.

Labour said the public needed “full confidence that the government is being entirely clear and transparent” over the make-up of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) after a leaked list obtained by The Guardian revealed that the senior Number 10 aide had taken part in crucial meetings.

Former Tory Cabinet minister David Davis meanwhile called on the Government to publish the full membership of Sage, and demanded the removal of “any non-scientist members”.

Number 10 has pushed back strongly at The Guardian’s story, which reports that Mr Cummings and Ben Warner, a data scientist who worked on the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, were among 23 attendees present at a meeting of Sage on the day Boris Johnson introduced a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.

Sources also told the paper that the pair had attended meetings as far back as February.

In a statement, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “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. Occasionally they ask questions or offer help when scientists mention problems in Whitehall.”

They added: “Sage provides independent scientific advice to the Government. Political advisers have no role in this.”

And, training the Government’s fire on the media itself, the spokesperson said: “Public confidence in the media has collapsed during this emergency partly because of ludicrous stories such as this.”

'INFLUENCED THE DEBATE'

The Government does not currently publish a list of those on the influential committee, and has previously cited concerns over the safety of its members if such a list were to be revealed.

But Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth said he was concerned “political advisers have influenced the debate” on how to respond to the pandemic.

The Shadow Health Secretary told the Today programme: “The way to clear this up is for all the minutes to be published... People have not got full confidence that the Government is being entirely clear and transparent.”

Concerns about the make-up of the committee have also been raised by Whitehall's former chief scientific adviser Sir David King, who held the role from 2000 to 2007 and then returned to serve as a key climate change aide in 2013.

The former adviser said that, during his own time in the role, “non-scientific civil servants” had regularly attended similar meetings to take notes or observe.

“However, these were never Spads [special advisers] who are of course party political," he said.

And Sir David, who served under both Labour and Conservative governments, added: “Let me be clear on this, the Chief Scientific Advisor’s role is to distill information from experts on Sage and inform government.

”If a Spad is sitting on Sage it’s a fair assumption that they are at least in part playing this role, one which it’s simply inappropriate and wrong for them to be playing.”

Senior Conservative backbencher David Davis meanwhile said that transparency during the coronavirus resposne was important “both for public confidence and for quality of public decision making”.

And the former Brexit Secretary demanded: “We should publish the membership of SAGE: remove any non-scientist members: publish their advice in full: and publish dissenting opinions with the advice.

“We do this for the [Bank of England’s] monetary policy committee, how is it not right to do so for the much more important scientific advisory committee?”

But Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, said he was “confident” that Sage had been led by the science as ministers fight to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

The NHS chief told the BBC: “It is the experts from a variety of backgrounds who discuss the evidence, they discuss the evidence base of the various topics, they come to conclusions around that evidence base.

“It is then, of course, the role of Sage to advise the government. I have been confident that what happens at Sage is a scientific discussion involving the scientists and the experts who are members of Sage.”

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