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Dominic Cummings is a member of secretive SAGE group advising the government

A full-blown row over the role of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings in the secret scientific group advising the Government on the coronavirus crisis is ensuing as scientists insist political appointees were never on the panel before. 

Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Brexit architect Cummings should not be attending meetings.  

Speaking on Today, Mr Ashworth thundered: ‘The concern is that political advisers have influenced the debate, the way to clear this up is for all the minutes to be published, we’ve called on the Government to do this. When you are dealing with an epidemic like this, you need to take the public with you every step’.

Mr Cummings’ name was on a leaked list of attendees of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ (SAGE) meetings as far back as February. 

The list, which was seen by The Guardian, showed Mr Cummings was at a SAGE meeting with 24 others on March 23, the day Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the public to announce heightened lockdown measures. 

Mr Cummings was joined by Ben Warner, a data scientist who worked alongside him on the Vote Leave Brexit campaign in 2016, say other members of the group.   

Dominic Cummings’ (pictured at Downing Street today) is part of the secretive SAGE group advising the government on its coronavirus response

However, Prof Stephen Powis, the National Medical Director of NHS England and a member of SAGE, described SAGE as a ‘forum for scientific discussion’ immune from political influence on Radio 4’s Today programme.

He said: ‘My experience of Sage is that it is a forum for scientific discussion.

‘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.

‘Very familiar territory for me – the sort of scientific discussion I have been very, very used to in my career as a doctor and a scientist. 

‘A thorough scientific discussion amongst the experts.’ 

The Government’s former chief scientific adviser Sir David King told The Guardian political advisers were never on the equivalent committees of SAGE when he chaired them.    

While both membership of SAGE and what is discussed during regular meetings has been kept a closely guarded secret, the news sheds uncertainty on the reliability of  decisions that have been made. 

Sir David said he was ‘shocked’ to discover there were political advisers on SAGE.

He added that it was ‘critically important’ scientific advice was free from political influence.  

Sir David Lidington, who served as Theresa May’s deputy, also suggested the practice was unusual, adding: ‘I’m not aware of any minister or special adviser, certainly not in Theresa May’s time, ever having been involved in the scientific advisory panels.’

In a letter to MPs this month, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, who chairs SAGE, said membership was kept secret on advice from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure. 

Mr Cummings was joined by Ben Warner (pictured on March 14), a data scientist who worked alongside him on the Vote Leave Brexit campaign in 2016, say other members of the group

Mr Cummings was joined by Ben Warner (pictured on March 14), a data scientist who worked alongside him on the Vote Leave Brexit campaign in 2016, say other members of the group

‘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,’ he added.

Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, who co-chairs SAGE, has signalled a change in direction, telling MPs that he and Sir Patrick did not oppose publishing the membership.

Asked if revealing members’ names would boost public confidence in the scientific advice being given, he replied: ‘Yes.’

The revelation about Mr Cummings’s participation in the group will add to concerns surrounding decisions by SAGE, which has not published any minutes from its last 19 meetings on the pandemic.

Former members of SAGE were outraged a political fixer was on the committee, as others feared Mr Cummings could have twisted any advice offered during the meetings.

A Government spokesman told MailOnline: ‘Expert participants often vary for each meeting according to which expertise is required. 

Mr Johnson recorded a video message on Easter Sunday at Number 10 after release from the hospital (pictured)

Mr Johnson recorded a video message on Easter Sunday at Number 10 after release from the hospital (pictured) 

‘A number of representatives from government departments and No 10 attend also.’  

Downing Street has said Mr Cummings has attended meetings of SAGE but denied that he was a member. 

In a statement, a No 10 spokesman 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.

‘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. 

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

It comes just days after Sir Patrick Vallance, the Goverment’s chief scientific adviser and chairman of SAGE, revealed they will not publish key evidence until after the pandemic ends. 

SAGE’s advice to the Government has faced fresh scrutiny over a lack of widespread early testing and resistance to the idea of widespread facemask-use. 

In a letter to the Commons’ Science Committee, Sir Patrick said SAGE met 20 times before the start of April to discuss Covid-19.

‘Sage will commit to informing the Committee in advance when new evidence is due to be published,’ he said.

‘Once Sage stops convening on this emergency the minutes of relevant Sage meetings, supporting documents and the names of participants (with their permission) will be published.’

But MPs criticised the secrecy. Senior Liberal Democrat Layla Moran said: ‘It is incredibly disappointing to hear that the Sage evidence guiding the Government will remain secret.   

‘Only by publishing this evidence can ministers be scrutinised and held to account on their decisions. 

‘The tone and quality of the debate improved dramatically following the publication of the Imperial College modelling, on which decisions were being made.

‘I’m calling on the Government to think again.’

MPs last week called for the cast list of SAGE to be made public so that people can see exactly who ministers are getting their advice from.

The government has rejected the calls, with sources claiming the names cannot be published because of security concerns amid reports of some experts receiving death threats.

But former SAGE members have questioned that argument, insisting it is ‘perfectly reasonable’ for people to know who sits on the committee which Mr Johnson is relying on to guide the government’s response to the outbreak. 

However in his letter to committee chairman Greg Clark, Sir Patrick said: ‘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.’ 

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty says he and Sir Patrick Vallance think membership of secretive Sage committee of government’s science advisers SHOULD be made public

by David Wilcock, Whitehall correspondent for MailOnline

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty backed naming the experts who are advising ministers on coronavirus today – but said they have been told they cannot be identified on security grounbds.

Professor Whitty said neither he nor Sir Patrick Vallance objected ‘in principle’ to the members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) being common knowledge.

But appearing in front of MPs this afternoon he said they had been told it could not happen for security reasons.

It came amid a secrecy row after Sir Patrick, the Chief Scientific Adviser, told MPs last week that the identity of other members of the committee would not be revealed until after the pandemic is over.

Sage meets regularly with membership from across a range of expert fields and its findings are fed into Cobra briefings for ministers.  

Appearing remotely in front of the Science and Technology Committee this afternoon, Prof Whitty said: ‘Neither of us have any problem in principle with the names being made public, many people talk about their own work on Sage perfectly legitimately.

Professor Whitty said neither he nor Sir Patrick Vallance objected 'in principle' to the members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) being common knowledge

Professor Whitty said neither he nor Sir Patrick Vallance objected ‘in principle’ to the members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) being common knowledge

Sir Patrick last week confirmed there were no plans to reveal the identities of the other Sage members until the pandemic was over

Sir Patrick last week confirmed there were no plans to reveal the identities of the other Sage members until the pandemic was over

‘I’m on Sage, he’s (Sir Patrick) on Sage, all of this is perfectly open.

‘But we were given quite clear advice from the CPNI (Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure) basically based on the fact that Sage is a sub-committee of Cobra and meets under a range of circumstances, some of which are very security related – this is not.

‘The principle needed to be thought through quite carefully. Absolutely no barrier though from me or from Sir Patrick in principle.’

He added: ‘The idea that it’s secret I think is rather strong. I think it’s not published, I suspect most members are actually known one way or another and all of the sub-committees are extremely open.’

MPs last week called for the cast list of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to be made public so that people can see exactly who ministers are getting their advice from.

The government has rejected the calls, with sources claiming the names cannot be published because of security concerns amid reports of some experts receiving death threats.

But former SAGE members have questioned that argument, insisting it is ‘perfectly reasonable’ for people to know who sits on the committee which Boris Johnson is relying on to guide the government’s response to the outbreak.

But in a letter to the same committee, Sir Patrick confirmed there were no plans to reveal the identities of the other Sage members.

‘Once Sage stops convening on this emergency the minutes of relevant Sage meetings, supporting documents and the names of participants (with their permission) will be published,’ he said.   

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk