The involvement of the prime minister’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings, in meetings of the scientific group advising the UK government’s response to the coronavirus has left other attendees shocked, concerned and worried for the impartiality of advice, the Guardian can reveal.
One attendee of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said they felt Cummings’ interventions had sometimes inappropriately influenced what is supposed to be an impartial scientific process.
A second Sage attendee said they were shocked when Cummings first began participating in Sage discussions, in February, because they believed the group should be providing “unadulterated scientific data” without any political input.
The Guardian’s revelation on Friday that Sage attendees have included Cummings and Ben Warner, who worked together on the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit, caused a storm of controversy over the weekend.
Downing Street is insisting there is nothing untoward about the pair’s attendance at Sage meetings, saying they are largely taking part as silent observers.
“It is factually wrong and damaging to sensible public debate to imply [Sage] advice is affected by government advisers listening to discussions,” a Downing Street spokesperson said. “It is entirely right that No 10 advisers attend to better understand the scientific debate and the decisions that need to be taken.”
However, the two other Sage attendees the Guardian spoke to painted a different picture to that presented by No 10, which has been striving to play down the influence of the two advisers. Both Sage attendees declined to be named.
“I have been concerned sometimes that Sage has become too operational, so we’ve ended up looking as though we are making decisions,” one of them said, making clear that Cummings had been involved on those occasions. “It contravenes previous guidelines about how you make sure you get impartial scientific advice going through to politicians, who make the decisions.”
Referring to both Cummings and Warner, the Sage attendee added: “When a very senior civil servant or a very well-connected person interrupts, then I don’t think anyone in the room feels the power to stop it. When you get to discussing where advice might be going, there have been occasions where they have been involved, and a couple of times I’ve thought: that’s not what we are supposed to be doing.”
A second Sage attendee said Cummings had played an active role meetings from February onwards. They said they were initially shocked to discover Cummings was taking part in a meeting of supposedly independent scientific experts.
“He was not just an observer, he’s listed as an active participant,” the source said. “He was engaging in conversation and not sitting silently.” The second attendee said Cumming’s involvement was worrying because of his reputation in Whitehall and the questions his participation raises about Sage’s role as a neutral body of expert advisers.
The reaction from the two Sage attendees contrasts with that of Prof Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College epidemiologist whose models have played a guiding role in the government’s response to Covid-19. He appeared unconcerned when asked, in a video interview, about Cummings attending Sage meetings. “There have been a number of observers at those meetings, who have not interfered with business at all,” he replied.
Sage membership is not fixed, but changes according to the nature of the crisis being faced. Independent scientific experts on the group are supposed to assess evidence impartially and pass their advice to Cobra, the civil contingencies committee convened in the Cabinet Office.
The advisory group is chaired by the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who also decides which experts take part. Asked whether Vallance had also given his approval to Cummings and Warner coming to his meetings, a government spokesperson said Vallance “would not have to sign off” observers or representatives from government departments.
The chief medical officers and chief scientific advisers from the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are classified as observers on Sage. However, unlike Cummings and Warner, they are unable to ask questions unless they are submitted in writing in advance.
George Eustice, the environment secretary, was asked about the makeup of Sage during Sunday’s Downing Street press conference.
He said it was “convened in response to specific emergencies, and the scientists that go on to that group will change, depending on the type of emergency.” He said minutes of its deliberations would eventually be published.
Stephen Powis, the national medical director for England, appearing alongside Eustice, said he would have “no problem” with the names of those who attend being made public, provided their personal permission had been sought. Chief medical officer Chris Whitty has previously said the same thing.
On Saturday, Labour urged the government to ban political advisers from attending Sage. Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said there were significant questions for the government to answer over the credibility of its decision-making and how non-scientists have influenced policy.
He said Cummings was “a political adviser, not a medical or scientific expert. If the public are to have confidence in Sage, the government must make clear Dominic Cummings can no longer participate or attend.”
The Conservative former Brexit secretary, David Davis, also criticised the attendance of Cummings and Warner at the Sage meetings. “The whole point of having Sage is you’re getting scientific advice based on the data, based on the best theories, and the best models we have at the time,” he told Sky News. “You don’t want any outside influences, either direct or indirect, either deliberate or accidental.”
However the former Conservative chancellor, Sajid Javid, argued it would be “worrying” if Cummings was not present at the Sage’s Covid-19 meetings, and criticised the Guardian’s reporting. “Media have a hugely important role in holding government to account, but some are courting public mistrust with non-stories,” Javid tweeted. “Time to act more responsibly.”
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said the government does not release the membership of the Sage committee because of the risk of pressure on members: “Sage do release their advice subsequently, normally a couple of weeks down the track, so it is properly tested carefully before being put out. We don’t release, as a matter of practice, the names of all the members of Sage because the risk of them being subject to pressure, undue influence.”