Shut your eyes – Keep it Secret – Save our Faces

UK’s scientific advice on coronavirus is to be kept secret until after the pandemic is over (see below). In the context of the re-opening of parliament yesterday’s Guardian editorial contained this paragraph:

….during this time, ministers have governed mainly by press conference. Message management has been tightly controlled. In these circumstances, crucial issues of concern have often been brushed aside. These include casual prior preparation of the kind alleged over the weekend, continuing shortages of personal protective equipment, neglect of social care, reluctance to cooperate with European neighbours and, most recently, the terms of any exit strategy. Not surprisingly, this system suits ministers fine. But it fosters bad government, not good. Among other defects, it suggests ministers do not trust the public, that the cabinet is divided over next steps and that Britain is governed by incompetent or feeble leaders who are afraid to take decisions, especially in Boris Johnson’s absence.

Owl has looked at the definition of what information should be classified “Secret”. 

Very sensitive information that justifies heightened protective measures to defend against determined and highly capable threat actors. For example, where compromise could seriously damage military capabilities, international relations or the investigation of serious organised crime.

So Owl thinks this all about: Shut your eyes – Keep it Secret – Save our Faces!

UK’s scientific advice on coronavirus to be secret until after pandemic

Rhys Blakely, Science Correspondent www.thetimes.co.uk

The scientific evidence that has underpinned No 10’s response to Covid-19 will not be made public until the pandemic ends, the government chief science adviser has told MPs.

Sir Patrick Vallance said that the minutes of meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) — the government’s most senior team of expert advisers — would only be released “once Sage stops convening on this emergency”.

In a letter to Greg Clark, the science and technology select committee chairman, Sir Patrick said that when the outbreak was under control the names of the scientists taking part in the meetings could also be released, he added, but only if those involved gave their permission.

Since the letter was sent on April 4, the government has been urged to reveal the scientific experts advising it on the Covid-19 amid concerns that ministers are consulting too narrowly. The only members of Sage to have been officially acknowledged are Sir Patrick and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, who co-chair the group.

The Conservative MP Mr Clark is among those calling for all members to be made public. “In order to have some visibility into what institutions and disciplines are represented, it would be extremely useful to have the membership known,” he said.

Other scientists have questioned the wisdom of making Sage membership secret. Dame Anne Glover, professor at Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences and a former chief scientific adviser to the European Commission, said: “My fear is that we are limiting ourselves when we need fresh thinking.”

Sir Patrick told Mr Clark that he is following the rules for Cobra meetings, to which Sage supplies advice. “This contributes towards safeguarding members’ personal security and protects them from lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence which may hinder their ability to give impartial advice,” Sir Patrick wrote.

The experts who make up Sage change according to the emergency it is facing. Sir Patrick has said that about 80 scientists from more than 20 institutions are regularly being consulted on coronavirus through four sub-committees.

However, the documents published during the Covid-19 crisis on the Sage website so far are largely related to mathematical models designed to predict the course of the pandemic.

Professor Dame Glover said: “Fears of lobbying as mentioned by Patrick are misplaced I think. Openness supports trust and trust is really needed at the moment. It also opens up the possibility of very valuable challenge and input from ‘not the usual suspects’ which could be very helpful.”

She added: “If Sage was a cybersecurity committee or a defence committee I could understand security concerns, but it isn’t. It’s an advisory group that should bring the best thinking that we have from every area, not just epidemiology, to bear on a significant crisis.”

Sheila Bird, a former programme leader of the biostatistics unit at the University of Cambridge, said that calls to make Sage membership transparent had been ignored.

“We should know who is among the core Sage group. It would provide reassurance that the correct disciplines are represented,” she said.

A government spokesman said: “We have already released a wide range of key papers that have informed Sage advice and we are currently preparing the next set of evidence for publication shortly.”

The spokesman added that the group’s members had been identified as those “best placed to provide high-quality, trusted advice and have a wide-range of scientific and technical specialities to ensure Sage advice is well-rounded.”

 

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