The UK’s chief scientific adviser (CSA) claims members of a somewhat secret group that is advising the government on the coronavirus will be announced “shortly”.
Controversy arose when a report leaked by The Guardian revealed Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings attended a meeting held by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage).
Attendees are not ordinarily made public, with minutes from the discussions only being published once a crisis has passed.
Cross-party calls have since urged for Sage’s “membership” to be announced, with one politician arguing a “lack of transparency is unacceptable in this national crisis”.
CSA Sir Patrick Vallance later said around 100 people who are “happy” to have their identities revealed will be announced “shortly”.
“Personal security reasons” may drive some to stay anonymous to avoid “abusive emails”.
In an effort to be more transparent across the board, Boris Johnson is due to release details on how the UK’s lockdown will be lifted in the “coming days”.
Coronavirus: ‘It’s vital public confidence is maintained’
Sage is a panel of medical and scientific experts, chaired by Sir Patrick, that provides independent advice to the government during a crisis.
Sir Patrick explained how around 20 scientists attend each meeting, not necessarily the same individuals every time.
The make-up of the committee is secret, however, members can choose to reveal themselves.
Latest coronavirus news, updates and advice
Off the back of The Guardian’s leaked report, former Brexit secretary David Davis said: “We should publish the membership of Sage, remove any non-scientist members, publish their advice in full and publish dissenting opinions with the advice.”
This has been echoed by other government officials.
“Disclosing who has attended Sage meetings could reassure and enhance the standing of the body whose advice is so important to the country at this time”, said Greg Clark, the Tory chair of the commons science committee.
“It would also allow for a better understanding of the range of disciplines which are shaping advice to government,” The Guardian reported.
Ed Davey acting leader of the Liberal Democrats added: “The public needs to have confidence that it is expert advice that is guiding government decisions.
“The lack of transparency is unacceptable in this national crisis.”
Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary, agreed Britons should not be left in the dark.
“It’s vital public confidence is maintained in this process,” he said.
“The membership and supporting papers should be published. Total transparency is crucial.”
Downing Street denied any wrongdoing in Cummings attending the meeting.
Coronavirus: ‘Transparency is important and that remains true now’
Speaking at a Science Media Centre briefing, Sir Patrick and his predecessor Sir Mark Walport defended Cumming’s attendance at the Sage meeting.
Sir Patrick argued “[government] officials have always been [at meetings]” since Sage was founded in 2008.
Nevertheless, the CSA reassured meeting attendees will be made public “shortly”, despite this going against “advice”.
“The usual practice with Sage is the names of the scientists are published after the emergency is over,” said Sir Patrick.
“We were strongly advised that needs to be the case here.
“[Announcing the names creates] an issue of people being influenced and personal security reasons.”
Despite his concerns, Sir Patrick has backed calls for transparency amid the pandemic.
“I believe we should be prepared to publish names sooner and [we] will publish names of those happy to have them published shortly,” he said.
“[There] may be around 100 people involved in Sage and [its] subgroups on this [list].
“Expect to see that shortly.”
In terms of “personal security” concerns, Sir Patrick added: “People’s [in Sage] whose names have been published have had problems with abusive emails that have made their lives quite difficult.”
Minutes from the meetings are also due to be released earlier than normal.
“Transparency is important [and] that remains true now,” said Sir Patrick.
“We will publish all the information. We’re trying to get that out as soon as we can.
“There is a very large number of documents, some are already in the public domain, some are put together by academics and we need to get [their] permission.”
Sage is not a ‘clandestine society’
Calls for transparency have been echoed by other medics.
“The Sage model is excellent, in fact, world leading,” said Dr Chris Tyler from University College London.
“However, much of its success relies on the execution.
“Sage should publish its membership, minutes from the meetings, the papers and questions it is considering and its findings, summaries and recommendations.
“The government’s own guidelines on science advisory committees calls for ‘openness and transparency’.
“Further, the same guidelines say that the government ‘should explain the reasons for policy decisions, particularly when the decision is not consistent with scientific advice and, in doing so, should accurately represent the evidence’.
“The government would do well to follow its own advice.”
Professor Stephen Reicher from the University of St Andrews agreed, adding: “Openness is a key principle in a crisis.
“Openness is critical to trust and the trust of the public is at the base of their magnificent adherence to the lockdown.
“The fact it is possible to call Sage a ‘secret group’ is deeply unfortunate, it makes it sound sinister and alien. That’s the last thing we want.”
Another expert called for greater clarity, but added this will throw up its own challenges.
“My bias is always towards transparency, particularly when people start to smell conspiracies,” said Professor Sir Robert Lechler from the Academy of Medical Sciences.
“The risk, of course, is experts will complain the wrong people are there, that their favourite discipline is not represented etc, but I think that is the lesser of two evils”.
One expert seemed in favour of Sage discussions going on “behind closed doors”.
“Sage is not, as it is being portrayed in some quarters, a clandestine secret society,” said Dr Jennifer Cole from University College London.
“It is a confidential process that enables scientists from different disciplines to speak frankly, often in the face of great uncertainty, to discuss how findings from one field intersect with those from another, and how to work through compromises that may arise, and how best to communicate this to politicians who have to decide on what that evidence means for the decision they have to make.
“The ability to do this ‘behind closed doors’ ensures those scientists can do so with confidence that their every decision will not be criticised and they will not be ‘blamed’ in retrospect for decisions whose outcomes would have been impossible to predict at the time based on the evidence available but seem ‘obvious’ with the benefit of hindsight.”
Naming attendees could also lead to a “witch-hunt”.
“Opening up the process risks putting those scientists and their families at the mercy of intense scrutiny, which will put many off being willing to participate and thus risks the best minds being absent from discussions”, said Dr Cole.
“It may open them up to surveillance from hostile states who may seek to blackmail them or coerce them to influence the process.
“It may see media witch-hunts for them to resign when decisions change and previous ones appear to be ‘wrong’, even if the change has actually been the result of additional evidence that was not available at the time.”
Dr Cole called on the public to “trust the government that those involved in the process are the best available, that they have been selected appropriately and that there are good reasons why the process is not entirely transparent”.
Professor Rowland Kao from the University of Edinburgh argued trust “requires the public be given the opportunity to understand where the science is paramount in decisions and where it is not”.
“For that, transparency will ultimately be necessary”, he said.
Professor Robert Dingwall from Nottingham Trent University sympathised with concerns around personal security.
“Even at my level, there is some unpleasant abuse by email and Twitter,” he said.
“I do not see a serious risk of violence against Sage members, but feelings are running high and life could get more difficult for people who are already under pressure.”
Professor Dame Til Wykes from King’s College London added: “We should make the Sage list public so the public can see the quality of the science.
“But we also need to help them cope with the high level of criticism that will inevitably follow and the diversion this might bring from their current and important job of helping us to dig our way out of this pandemic with the least lives lost”.
What is the coronavirus?
The new coronavirus is one of seven strains of a virus class that are known to infect humans.
Others cause everything from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which killed 774 people during its 2002/3 outbreak.
Since the coronavirus outbreak was identified, more than 2.9 million cases have been confirmed worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Of these cases, over 876,000 are known to have “recovered”.
Globally, the death toll has exceeded 207,500.
The coronavirus mainly spreads face to face via infected droplets expelled in a cough or sneeze.
Symptoms include fever, cough and slight breathlessness.
Early research suggests the infection is mild in four out of five cases, however, it can trigger a respiratory disease called COVID-19.
The coronavirus has no “set” treatment, with most patients naturally fighting off the infection.
Those requiring hospitalisation are given “supportive care”, like ventilation, while their immune system gets to work.