Coronavirus lockdown: scientists challenge No 10 with rival advice on Covid‑19

The government’s former chief scientific adviser is convening a rival panel of experts to offer advice on easing the lockdown.

Tomorrow Sir David King will chair the first meeting of the group, which is designed to act as an independent alternative to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

Caroline Wheeler, Deputy Political Editor www.thetimes.co.uk 

The move comes after weeks of unease about the transparency of Sage decision-making. It has emerged that 16 of the 23 known members of the committee, which meets in secret, are employed by the government.

The independent group will broadcast live on YouTube and take evidence from global experts. It aims to present the government with “robust, unbiased advice” and some evidence-based policies to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

The committee will formally submit its recommendations to the health and social care select committee, heaping pressure on Boris Johnson as he draws up the government’s lockdown exit strategy.

King, who was chief scientific adviser to two prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, from 2000 to 2007, has previously accused ministers of responding too slowly to the coronavirus outbreak and wrongly allowing the Cheltenham festival and other big events to go ahead in mid-March.

He served under David Cameron and Theresa May as the UK’s climate envoy from 2013 to 2017.

Speaking before tomorrow’s meeting, which will be followed by a news conference, King said: “Science is fundamentally a system based on peer review. When it comes to scientific advice of any kind, transparency is essential.”

He added: “I am not at all critical of the scientists who are putting advice before the government . . . but because there is no transparency the government can say they are following scientific advice but we don’t know that they are.”

Dominic Cummings, a top aide to the prime minister, has attended the secret meetings of Sage.

“Cummings is an adviser to the prime minister. And the chief scientific adviser is an adviser to the prime minister. So there are two voices from the scientific advisory group and I think that’s very dangerous because only one of the two understands the science,” King said.

The committee has a draft agenda and is seeking to end the pandemic “with the fewest casualties possible”.

It is expected to focus on seven key areas. These include the criteria being used to lift the lockdown, how testing and tracing can be achieved, whether the policies on quarantine and the shielding of vulnerable groups are sufficient and how untapped resources can be better deployed.

The committee of 12 will include experts from all key scientific fields from the UK and abroad, including those from countries seemingly at the tail end of the pandemic.

Anthony Costello, the former director of the World Health Organisation and professor of global health at University College London, is among the members of the committee.

Others include: Professor Gabriel Scally, president of the epidemiology & public health section of the Royal Society of Medicine, and current adviser to the government of Ireland; Helen Ward, professor of public health, Imperial College London; and Professor Elias Mossialos, professor of health policy at London School of Economics and an adviser to the Greek government.

Costello said: “We want the meeting to be positive and constructive given that the current Sage has been somewhat opaque and we haven’t been able to see what they are saying or many of their documents. Scientific advice is always based on a debate and we are going to bring together different viewpoints so that the scientific balance can be constructed.”

Cummings has been at the centre of a row over whether he swayed Sage debates during coronavirus meetings.

He has been accused of putting pressure on the scientific body to enforce a lockdown sooner and to shut pubs and restaurants down within two days of a meeting on March 18.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis the government has insisted that all its decisions have been based on the independent advice provided by Sage. But Cummings’s involvement in the group’s meetings has been seized on by critics who have questioned how independent and impartial the advice given to ministers is.

Responding to the claims last week, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Sage provide independent scientific advice to government. No political advisers influence this advice.”