Government refuses to release minutes of coronavirus meetings between ministers and SAGE advisers

PUBLISHED: 13:17 23 April 2020 | UPDATED: 10:32 24 April 2020

Chief science officer Sir Patrick Vallance says he will not release SAGE minutes until the coronavirus epidemic has ended

Chief science officer Sir Patrick Vallance says he will not release SAGE minutes until the coronavirus epidemic has ended

Archant

The government has come under renewed pressure to release minutes from Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) meetings after it refused to do so during the coronavirus.

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In a letter addressed to the science and technology committee chair, Greg Clark, Sir Patrick Vallance, Boris Johnson’s chief scientific advisor, said secret advice shared during SAGE meeting would not be published until the end of the Covid-19 epidemic.

Vallance argued this is to protect the identity of scientists who participate in the bi-weekly meetings with Downing Street officials.

But, 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 Vallance’s motives to withhold that information.

In the letter, which The New European has seen, Vallance wrote: “The decision to not disclose SAGE membership for the time being is based upon advice from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure and is in line with the standard procedure for COBR meetings, to which SAGE gives advice.

“This contributes towards safeguarding individual members personal security and protects them from lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence which may hinder their ability to give impartial advice. Of course, we do not stop Individuals from revealing that they have attended SAGE.”

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The advisor has promised to disclose names with the permission of meeting-goers and other supporting documents at the end of the coronavirus epidemic. He has asked all independent modelling groups that advise SAGE to publish their own codes.

The committee’s decision-making process has come under intense public scrutiny after the government ditched plans for a mass testing, tracking and tracing campaign early on in the coronavirus outbreak.

Despite the government publishing some documents - such as modellings - critics say this does little to explain what ministers thought of “herd immunity” and what role behavioural scientists played in strategic planning.

Calls to release more information were notched up last month when a group health experts published a letter in the scientific journal, the Lancet, demanding ministers release conversations now.

Imperial College health professor Azeem Majeed backed the move on Twitter: “When the government say their Covid-19 strategy is “led by the science” but then refuse to publish the minutes or membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) or allow the members of SAGE to debate with its critics publicly, that’s dogma, not science.”

Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Phillips agreed: “There needs to be complete transparency on the scientific advice they [ministers] are given, publish all SAGE meeting minutes, because for example I want to know if the advice on, for example, mask wearing by the public is based on science or the lack of supply of masks.”

The Scottish government has taken the unprecedented step of publishing the names officials in similar meetings north of the border.

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