A leaked list of those that sit on Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE)’s group advising the government on coronavirus has revealed that both Dominic Cummings and a data scientist from the Vote Leave campaign are in attendance.
The Guardian reports that both Boris Johnson’s chief political adviser and Ben Warner, a data scientist who worked on the Vote Leave campaign during the EU referendum, have been in attendance of meetings as far back as February.
Such reports are expected to raise question about SAGE’s political independence when ministers claim that they are ‘following the science’.
Cummings and Warner were said to both be in attendance at a key meeting at a March meeting when a lockdown was ordered over Covid-19.
There have been questions as to why the government has refused to release the minutes of such meetings to support decision making, with membership of the group and its advice being kept from public.
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According to the 2011 Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, minute takers do not need to release the names members in official documentation, calling into question motives to withhold that information.
Sir Patrick Vallance, Boris Johnson’s chief scientific advisor, had promised to disclose names with the permission of meeting-goers and other supporting documents at the end of the coronavirus epidemic.
But Professor Chris Witty, the chief medial officer, suggested revealing the names of those on the group could boost confidence in the advice.
Revelations that Cummings sits in on the meeting alongside Warner, who is said to have more recently worked on the Tory Party general election, has raised further questions.
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 Cummings and 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 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.
Number 10 previously dismissed a report that Cummings had suggested advocating ‘herd immunity’, after a newspaper claimed he had outlined the government response as ‘herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.’
Acting Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said it added to the need for a public inquiry on the government’s handling on coronavirus.
He said: ‘The coronavirus crisis is leaving the most vulnerable at risk. 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.
‘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.’
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the disclosure that 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.
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.’