[Note the reference at the end of this editorial that highlights the power of patronage. Toe the line or else! – ring any bells closer to home?]
With the prime minister’s chief adviser attending the scientific advisory panel during this crisis, it is right to ask whether ministers are guided only by the science they want to hear
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is a body of experts convened to counsel ministers on how to handle specific crises. When dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, the government likes to say it is “guided by the science”, but what is that advice and who gives it? Sage’s meetings are closed affairs, its recommendations private and its minutes, if they are ever published, turn up weeks late. Until last Friday, the group’s members were unknown. When the Guardian revealed who was attending Sage, a possible reason for the secrecy emerged.
It was the presence of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, at the meetings rather than the scientists that made the headlines. This might explain how Britain stumbled into the crisis. Sage was meant to offer a clearer separation between scientific truths and political values. It has allowed ministers to claim that they are being guided by objective reasons rather than ideology. But having a political adviser of Mr Cummings’ importance, and a data analyst who worked with him on the leave campaign, at Sage pierces that argument.
It also makes it harder to claim there was not a political cost to ministerial judgment calls based on evidence tainted by ideological influence. Sage recommended less stringent social distancing measures when other European capitals implemented tough policies. Its experts underestimated the percentage of people who would have to be hospitalised. The conventional response of lockdown, mass testing and tracing was snubbed initially in favour of “herd immunity”. This was a costly mistake – making it harder to source chemicals, and personal protective equipment. What was Mr Cummings’ role in discussions about these decisions? The public ought to know.
Mr Cummings, with his admiration of computer modelling to “war game epidemics”, is unlikely to be interested in the tried-and-tested preventative measures advocated by the World Health Organization as early as January. In its bulletins the WHO advocated the “test, trace and isolate” regime that Britain only woke up to after allowing the virus to spread unimpeded through the population. Sage’s lack of any public health experts would seem a mistake in the light of the government’s current strategy.
Mr Cummings’ presence will distort a discussion about differences, which are meant to be narrowed through debate. The ability to speak up without the perceived fear of sanction is necessary for a healthy exchange of views. He is known for being disagreeable about disagreement. Scientists on Sage would not dissent perhaps in the way that you might expect them to. It is plausible that Mr Cummings may single out a troublesome academic who questioned whether it was right, for example, for Boris Johnson to announce he had shaken the hands of people infected with coronavirus. (It wasn’t.)
Falling out of favour might cost scientists not just a gong but also lucrative government funding streams. Mr Cummings increases the chances that dissident views on Sage remain just that. What is to stop him usurping the role of the chief scientific adviser who is meant to be the source of advice to Mr Johnson but doesn’t share a personal chemistry with him?
There is no reason why the membership of Sage should be kept secret. Declarations of interest ought to be published. Minutes of meetings should be made available promptly. Who can be relied upon for giving advice in a time of crisis is a matter of national importance. It is obvious that it is best to involve those who are expert in the area. Mr Cummings is not one of them.