Row over UK PM aide at secret COVID-19 science meetings

Row over Boris Johnson’s top aide at secret COVID-19 science meetings

Downing Street on Saturday went into strong denial mode after a political row broke out over a UK media report claiming that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top aide had attended secret meetings of the scientific group advising the government on its COVID-19 response strategy.

‘The Guardian’ claimed that Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief strategic adviser, and an official associated with the Brexit campaign were part of the meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). This triggered Opposition anger as it implies government influence over what is pegged as an independent advisory body, the membership of which has not been made public.

"The scientists on SAGE are among the most eminent in their fields. It is factually wrong and damaging to a sensible public debate to imply their advice is affected by government advisers listening to discussions," a Downing Street spokesperson said.

“Public confidence in the media has collapsed during this emergency partly because of ludicrous stories such as this,” the spokesperson said.

Johnson’s office stresses that Cummings and Ben Warner, a data scientist associated with the Vote Leave campaign for the UK's exit from the European Union (EU), are not members of the group and had only listened in to SAGE meetings in order to better understand the scientific debate around coronavirus.

They "occasionally" asked questions or offered help with reaching out to civil servants at Whitehall when required.

SAGE is a panel of medical and scientific experts, chaired by the UK's Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, that provides independent advice to the government during any crisis and has been leading on crucial decisions such as the length and nature of the Covid-19 lockdown. Its advice feeds into ministers’ decision-making process and is not made public.

But the latest revelations have led to calls for greater transparency in its working, including from within the ruling Conservative Party backbenchers.

"We should publish the membership of SAGE: remove any non-scientist members: publish their advice in full: and publish dissenting opinions with the advice," Tory MP David Davis, a former Brexit Secretary, said on Twitter.

But the Opposition Labour Party has been more vehement in its reaction, saying Cummings had "no place" on the government's scientific advisory group.

"He is a political adviser, not a medical or scientific expert. If the public are to have confidence in the SAGE, the government must make clear Dominic Cummings can no longer participate or attend," Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told the BBC.

"The concern is that political advisers have influenced the debate," he said.

Labour has called on the government to now be "entirely transparent" about its decisions and to publish the minutes of SAGE meetings.

Cummings returned to 10 Downing Street recently after he went into self-isolation with mild symptoms of coronavirus at the end of last month, around the same time as his boss – the UK PM.

The advice handed down by SAGE will define the UK’s course through the pandemic, including decisions around when the strict stay at home lockdown measures in place to suppress transmission can begin to be eased.

Though the country’s death toll from the deadly virus continues to rise and edges towards 20,000, there are some indications that the level of hospitalisations may now be within manageable levels for the state-funded National Health Service (NHS).

This would prove the overriding factor behind any gradual lifting of social distancing restrictions when a compulsory government review is due on May 7.