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Dominic Cummings is a member of secretive SAGE group advising the government

Dominic Cummings' (pictured at Downing Street today) is part of the secretive SAGE group advising the government on its coronavirus response

Dominic Cummings' (pictured at Downing Street today) is part of the secretive SAGE group advising the government on its coronavirus response

Dominic Cummings’ (pictured at Downing Street today) is part of the secretive SAGE group advising the government on its coronavirus response

Dominic Cummings’ presence at secretive SAGE meetings ‘taints advice’ being given to government, a leading scientist warned today.

Dr Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the university of East Anglia, said that if the controversial adviser has been contributing in meetings advice being given to the government may be ‘flawed’. 

He said: ‘If he wasn’t and he was contributing to the discussion, then that means we need to be very cautious about the conclusions of Sage.

‘Because whether or not he did influence the outcomes we can’t know for certain, and therefore the validity of the advice coming out of the committee might be flawed.

‘It has been pointed out quite a lot in the press that a lot of the advice and policies that we have had over Covid-19 has differed quite markedly from advice from international agencies.

‘We need to be sure there wasn’t undue political influence at the point those decisions were being taken.’

It came as Labour waded into the row amid concerns political appointees are breathing down the necks of scientists. 

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme today that Brexit architect Cummings should not be attending meetings.  

This table shows who is sitting on SAGE, the body advising the Government in the pandemic

This table shows who is sitting on SAGE, the body advising the Government in the pandemic

This table shows who is sitting on SAGE, the body advising the Government in the pandemic 

Mr Ashworth thundered: ‘The concern is that political advisers have influenced the debate, the way to clear this up is for all the minutes to be published, we’ve called on the Government to do this. When you are dealing with an epidemic like this, you need to take the public with you every step’.

Mr Cummings’ name was on a leaked list of attendees of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ (SAGE) meetings as far back as February. 

The list, which was seen by The Guardian, showed Mr Cummings was at a SAGE meeting with 24 others on March 23, the day Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the public to announce heightened lockdown measures. 

Mr Cummings was joined by Ben Warner, a data scientist who worked alongside him on the Vote Leave Brexit campaign in 2016, say other members of the group.   

However, Prof Stephen Powis, the National Medical Director of NHS England and a member of SAGE, described SAGE as a ‘forum for scientific discussion’ immune from political influence on Radio 4’s Today programme.

He said: ‘My experience of Sage is that it is a forum for scientific discussion.

‘It is the experts from a variety of backgrounds who discuss the evidence, they discuss the evidence base of the various topics, they come to conclusions around that evidence base. It is then, of course, the role of Sage to advise the Government.

‘I have been confident that what happens at Sage is a scientific discussion involving the scientists and the experts who are members of Sage.

‘Very familiar territory for me – the sort of scientific discussion I have been very, very used to in my career as a doctor and a scientist. 

‘A thorough scientific discussion amongst the experts.’ 

Labour's Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth (pictured) has demanded that Dominic Cummings not sit on SAGE

Labour's Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth (pictured) has demanded that Dominic Cummings not sit on SAGE

Mr Cummings was joined by Ben Warner (pictured on March 14), a data scientist who worked alongside him on the Vote Leave Brexit campaign in 2016, say other members of the group

Mr Cummings was joined by Ben Warner (pictured on March 14), a data scientist who worked alongside him on the Vote Leave Brexit campaign in 2016, say other members of the group

Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth (left) has demanded that Dominic Cummings and Ben Warner (right) should not be sitting on SAGE

The Government’s former chief scientific adviser Sir David King told The Guardian political advisers were never on the equivalent committees of SAGE when he chaired them.    

While both membership of SAGE and what is discussed during regular meetings has been kept a closely guarded secret, the news sheds uncertainty on the reliability of  decisions that have been made. 

Sir David said he was ‘shocked’ to discover there were political advisers on SAGE.

He added that it was ‘critically important’ scientific advice was free from political influence.  

Sir David Lidington, who served as Theresa May’s deputy, also suggested the practice was unusual. He said: ‘I’m not aware of any minister or special adviser, certainly not in Theresa May’s time, ever having been involved in the scientific advisory panels.’

In a letter to MPs this month, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, who chairs SAGE, said membership was kept secret on advice from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure. 

‘This contributes towards safeguarding individual members’ personal security and protects them from lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence which may hinder their ability to give impartial advice,’ he added.

Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, who co-chairs SAGE, has signalled a change in direction, telling MPs that he and Sir Patrick did not oppose publishing the membership.

Asked if revealing members’ names would boost public confidence in the scientific advice being given, he replied: ‘Yes.’

The revelation about Mr Cummings’s participation in the group will add to concerns surrounding decisions by SAGE, which has not published any minutes from its last 19 meetings on the pandemic.

Former members of SAGE were outraged a political fixer was on the committee, as others feared Mr Cummings could have twisted any advice offered during the meetings.

A Government spokesman told MailOnline: ‘Expert participants often vary for each meeting according to which expertise is required. 

Mr Johnson recorded a video message on Easter Sunday at Number 10 after release from the hospital (pictured)

Mr Johnson recorded a video message on Easter Sunday at Number 10 after release from the hospital (pictured)

Mr Johnson recorded a video message on Easter Sunday at Number 10 after release from the hospital (pictured) 

‘A number of representatives from government departments and No 10 attend also.’  

Downing Street has said Mr Cummings has attended meetings of SAGE but denied that he was a member. 

In a statement, a No 10 spokesman said: ‘It is not true that Mr Cummings or Dr Warner are ‘on’ or members of Sage. 

‘Mr Cummings and Dr Warner have attended some Sage meetings and listen to some meetings now they are all virtual.

‘They do this in order to understand better the scientific debates concerning this emergency and also to understand better the limits of how science and data can help government decisions.

‘Occasionally they ask questions or offer help when scientists mention problems in Whitehall. 

‘Sage provides independent scientific advice to the government. Political advisers have no role in this.’

It comes just days after Sir Patrick Vallance, the Goverment’s chief scientific adviser and chairman of SAGE, revealed they will not publish key evidence until after the pandemic ends. 

SAGE’s advice to the Government has faced fresh scrutiny over a lack of widespread early testing and resistance to the idea of widespread facemask-use. 

In a letter to the Commons’ Science Committee, Sir Patrick said SAGE met 20 times before the start of April to discuss Covid-19.

‘Sage will commit to informing the Committee in advance when new evidence is due to be published,’ he said.

‘Once Sage stops convening on this emergency the minutes of relevant Sage meetings, supporting documents and the names of participants (with their permission) will be published.’

But MPs criticised the secrecy. Senior Liberal Democrat Layla Moran said: ‘It is incredibly disappointing to hear that the Sage evidence guiding the Government will remain secret.   

‘Only by publishing this evidence can ministers be scrutinised and held to account on their decisions. 

‘The tone and quality of the debate improved dramatically following the publication of the Imperial College modelling, on which decisions were being made.

‘I’m calling on the Government to think again.’

MPs last week called for the cast list of SAGE to be made public so that people can see exactly who ministers are getting their advice from.

The government has rejected the calls, with sources claiming the names cannot be published because of security concerns amid reports of some experts receiving death threats.

But former SAGE members have questioned that argument, insisting it is ‘perfectly reasonable’ for people to know who sits on the committee which Mr Johnson is relying on to guide the government’s response to the outbreak. 

However in his letter to committee chairman Greg Clark, Sir Patrick said: ‘The decision to not disclose SAGE membership for the time being is based upon advice from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure and is in line with the standard procedure for COBR meetings, to which SAGE gives advice.

‘This contributes towards safeguarding individual members personal security and protects them from lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence which may hinder their ability to give impartial advice. 

‘Of course, we do not stop individuals from revealing that they have attended SAGE.’ 

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty says he and Sir Patrick Vallance think membership of secretive Sage committee of government’s science advisers SHOULD be made public

By David Wilcock, Whitehall correspondent for MailOnline

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty backed naming the experts who are advising ministers on coronavirus today – but said they have been told they cannot be identified on security grounbds.

Professor Whitty said neither he nor Sir Patrick Vallance objected ‘in principle’ to the members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) being common knowledge.

But appearing in front of MPs this afternoon he said they had been told it could not happen for security reasons.

It came amid a secrecy row after Sir Patrick, the Chief Scientific Adviser, told MPs last week that the identity of other members of the committee would not be revealed until after the pandemic is over.

SAGE meets regularly with membership from across a range of expert fields and its findings are fed into Cobra briefings for ministers.  

Appearing remotely in front of the Science and Technology Committee this afternoon, Prof Whitty said: ‘Neither of us have any problem in principle with the names being made public, many people talk about their own work on Sage perfectly legitimately.

Professor Whitty said neither he nor Sir Patrick Vallance objected 'in principle' to the members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) being common knowledge

Professor Whitty said neither he nor Sir Patrick Vallance objected 'in principle' to the members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) being common knowledge

Professor Whitty said neither he nor Sir Patrick Vallance objected ‘in principle’ to the members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) being common knowledge

Sir Patrick last week confirmed there were no plans to reveal the identities of the other Sage members until the pandemic was over

Sir Patrick last week confirmed there were no plans to reveal the identities of the other Sage members until the pandemic was over

Sir Patrick last week confirmed there were no plans to reveal the identities of the other Sage members until the pandemic was over

‘I’m on SAGE, he’s (Sir Patrick) on SAGE, all of this is perfectly open.

‘But we were given quite clear advice from the CPNI (Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure) basically based on the fact that Sage is a sub-committee of Cobra and meets under a range of circumstances, some of which are very security related – this is not.

‘The principle needed to be thought through quite carefully. Absolutely no barrier though from me or from Sir Patrick in principle.’

He added: ‘The idea that it’s secret I think is rather strong. I think it’s not published, I suspect most members are actually known one way or another and all of the sub-committees are extremely open.’

MPs last week called for the cast list of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to be made public so that people can see exactly who ministers are getting their advice from.

The government has rejected the calls, with sources claiming the names cannot be published because of security concerns amid reports of some experts receiving death threats.

But former SAGE members have questioned that argument, insisting it is ‘perfectly reasonable’ for people to know who sits on the committee which Boris Johnson is relying on to guide the government’s response to the outbreak.

But in a letter to the same committee, Sir Patrick confirmed there were no plans to reveal the identities of the other SAGE members.

‘Once SAGE stops convening on this emergency the minutes of relevant SAGE meetings, supporting documents and the names of participants (with their permission) will be published,’ he said.   

Fury at Dominic Cummings’ wife using BBC Radio 4’s Thought For The Day to say how ‘extremely kind’ he is while he is under fire for his role on SAGE group advising government

The wife of Prime Minster Boris Johnson‘s chief advisor described her husband Dominic Cummings as ‘extremely kind’ during this morning’s Thought For The Day on BBC Radio 4. 

Mary Wakefield, who is the commissioning editor of The Spectator spoke about their battle against Covid-19

However, with her husband at the centre of the row about attending the government’s secretive SAGE group, social media users expressed outrage by the timing of her appearance. 

Mary Wakefield, pictured left, wife of Boris Johnson's chief advisor Dominic Cummings, right, delivered this morning's Thought For The Day on BBC Radio 4

Mary Wakefield, pictured left, wife of Boris Johnson's chief advisor Dominic Cummings, right, delivered this morning's Thought For The Day on BBC Radio 4

Mary Wakefield, pictured left, wife of Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings, right, delivered this morning’s Thought For The Day on BBC Radio 4

LBC presenter James O'Brien questioned whether the BBC should have had her on the show today when her husband was the centre of a political storm

LBC presenter James O'Brien questioned whether the BBC should have had her on the show today when her husband was the centre of a political storm

LBC presenter James O’Brien questioned whether the BBC should have had her on the show today when her husband was the centre of a political storm

Commenting on the broadcast LBC’s James O’Brien said: ‘What on earth where they thinking.’ 

He wrote on Twitter: ‘I honestly thought the stuff about Mrs Cummings using ‘Thought For The Day’ on @BBCr4Today to tell everyone how kind her husband is was a joke I wasn’t getting.’  

Ms Wakefield said: ‘Uncertainty is the hallmark of the coronavirus, when you’ve got it the sense of medieval unknowing only deepens. Is this definitely it? Will it get worse? Will it come back? My version of the virus began with a nasty headache and a grubby feeling of unease. After which I threw up on the bathroom floor.’That’s disgusting mum’ said my four year old son, handing me a towel with a look of patronising distaste.

‘I’ve never known a bug treat its victims so differently. My friends have reported stabbing sore throats, a loss of taste and smell and a numbness in their fingertips. One slight but sad effect of this is that it makes phoning friends to share coronavirus stories parculiarly unsatisfying. ‘Weren’t the muscle aches awful? Oh you didn’t get it. No, no sore throats for me. Oh well.’

‘That evening as I lay on the sofa a happy thought occurred to me. If this was the virus then my husband who works 16 hour days as a rule, would have to come home. I let myself imagine a fortnight in bed with mild symptoms, more fool me. My husband did rush home to look after me, he’s an extremely kind man whatever people assume to the contrary.

Commenting on her husband, pictured, Ms Wakefield said: 'My husband did rush home to look after me, he's an extremely kind man whatever people assume to the contrary'

Commenting on her husband, pictured, Ms Wakefield said: 'My husband did rush home to look after me, he's an extremely kind man whatever people assume to the contrary'

Commenting on her husband, pictured, Ms Wakefield said: ‘My husband did rush home to look after me, he’s an extremely kind man whatever people assume to the contrary’

‘But 24 hours later he said ‘I feel weird’ and collapsed. I felt breathless, sometimes achy, but Dom couldn’t get out of bed. Day in day out for ten days he had a high fever, with spasms that made the muscles lump and twitch in his legs. He could breathe but only in a limited shallow way. After a week we reached peak corona uncertainty, day six is a turning point I was told, when you either get better or head for ICU. Was Dom fighting off the bug or was he heading for a ventilator, who knew?

‘I sat on his bed staring at his chest trying to count his breaths per minute. The little oxygen reader we’d bought on Amazon indicated he should be in hospital, but his lips weren’t blue and he could talk in full sentences. Such as ‘please stop staring at my chest sweet heart’. My son in his doctor’s uniform administered Ribena.’

‘Just as Dom was beginning to feel better it was reported that Boris was heading in the other direction into hospital. I’ve been a slack Christian during this era of biblical plague, churches are shut, even Catholic churches. One of the reasons I converted is that Catholic churches are always open – and now they are closed it feels like someone has turned off the spiritual stopcock. But what is there to do for the sick now except pray? I got to my knees for Boris and found to my surprise that my prayers flowed easily. As if carried along in a current of others.’

This twitter user expressed disbelief that Cummings' wife was given such a platform

This twitter user expressed disbelief that Cummings' wife was given such a platform

This twitter user expressed disbelief that Cummings’ wife was given such a platform 

Twitter users said they were not amused by Ms Wakefield's appearance on the show

Twitter users said they were not amused by Ms Wakefield's appearance on the show

Twitter users said they were not amused by Ms Wakefield’s appearance on the show

Downing Street angrily dismissed claims its scientific advice could be politicised following the disclosure that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings had been attending meetings of a key scientific group.

Opposition parties, however, said political advisers had no business attending the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and called for its deliberations to be opened to wider scrutiny.

The controversy over Sage – which will advise ministers on the lifting of restrictions – came after The Guardian reported that Mr Cummings and Ben Warner, a data scientist who worked with him on the Vote Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum, had been present at Sage meetings.

Downing Street denied they were members of the group and said they were simply seeking to better understand the science involved and how it could inform Government decision-making. 

Sage is intended to provide technical and scientific advice and remain strictly politically neutral during national crises.

It does not disclose the names of the scientists involved beyond that of its chairman – currently chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

A list of names leaked to the Guardian revealed Mr Cummings – already a controversial figure for his role in the Vote Leave campaign – had attended a Sage meeting on March 23.

His presence and that of data scientist Ben Warner, who also worked on the Vote Leave campaign, caused outrage in many quarters for fear politics could be affecting the quality of the resulting advice.

Dr Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the university of East Anglia, said the fact of Mr Cummings’ attendance without the public knowing his level of involvement could taint the advice Sage has given so far.

Senior civil servants invited to attend, including the Government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, are permitted to ask questions but must submit them in writing in advance.

Dr Hunter, who also sits on a number of World Health Organisation (WHO) committees, said it was not clear if Mr Cummings was subject to the same restraints.

He said: ‘If he wasn’t and he was contributing to the discussion, then that means we need to be very cautious about the conclusions of Sage.

‘Because whether or not he did influence the outcomes we can’t know for certain, and therefore the validity of the advice coming out of the committee might be flawed.

‘It has been pointed out quite a lot in the press that a lot of the advice and policies that we have had over Covid-19 has differed quite markedly from advice from international agencies.

‘We need to be sure there wasn’t undue political influence at the point those decisions were being taken.’

Alex Thomas, programme director at governance think tank The Institute for Government, also thinks it is the lack of transparency around Sage rather than Mr Cummings’ presence that is the biggest problem.

He said it would be unusual for a representative for Number 10 to have full membership at a meeting but added: ‘It is okay for an adviser to a minister or the Prime Minister to attend meetings like that, but – and it is an important but – we need more transparency about how all of these meetings are working in terms of the advice that is generated.

‘(It would mean) we spend less time debating and commenting about who is at these meetings and focusing on process and more time focusing on the substances.’

One of the reasons given for not publishing the names of those involved is to protect them from lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence.

Mr Thomas, who spent 17 years with the civil service, thinks the risk of lobbyists clouding the judgement of those involved is overblown.

‘As ever with things like this you are balancing different pros and cons and, on balance, my view, given the importance and the public interest attached to those decisions, it is better to be open,’ he said.

MailOnline has approached the BBC for a comment.  

 

Courtesy DAILY MAIL

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