Coronavirus: Science adviser sets up rival Sage group because experts 'not free to speak their minds'

·4-min read

A senior scientist has said government experts are not free to “speak their minds” in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser to prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has set up his own “shadow” group of experts as an alternative to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

He said his new panel, which will stream its meetings on YouTube, was necessary because he feared experts were deferring to ministers. Sir David has previously criticised the government for delaying its lockdown.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 28: Prime Minister's Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings arrives at Downing Street on April 28, 2020 in London, England. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who returned to Downing Street this week after recovering from Covid-19, said the country needed to continue its lockdown measures to avoid a second spike in infections. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
The prime minister's chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has sat in on Sage meetings (Getty Images)

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday if government experts were not free to speak their minds, he said: “I believe that’s the case, yes.”

He added: “I think there’s a very big difference between the situation today and the situation as it was in 2010-11, that is, quite simply, the permission to speak in the public domain has been changed.

“I think the main point I’m making is that an independent science advisory group really needs to be dominated by people whose income is not determined by the fact they are working for the government.”

Sir David said he created the new shadow group to emphasise the "importance of transparency”, after concerns were raised about how Sage was informing ministers’ response to the COVID-19 crisis.

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He said the presence of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings at Sage meetings could cause “confusion”.

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Sir David told the PA news agency: "I know this is a controversial point, but I certainly think that I would never have had the prime minister's chief strategy adviser on board, because I think that it is perfectly feasible to provide clear scientific advice and then for the strategy and the politics to be determined separately."

He said he was concerned Cummings's presence had given Johnson "two advisers" on coronavirus, with "a chief scientific adviser giving the advice from Sage and at the same time a strategy adviser who, frankly, is not a scientist and isn't in a position to summarise that advice".

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Sir David's new 12-strong committee of academics will convene for the first time on Monday and is keen to investigate seven key points, including how successful testing and tracing can be achieved, and what social distancing measures will be needed in the future.

Sir David said he will share their findings and workings with the public by streaming meetings on YouTube.

He said: "If we're not given access to the science advice it's very difficult to evaluate that, and by given access I mean, when I was chief scientific adviser I explained to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that every bit of advice I put into them I would put into the public domain as well."

He added: "I recognised I was giving advice, but they were making the political decision; they would bring in strategy advisers and other advisers, but the advice was purely scientific."

Last week, current chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said a partial list of Sage members would be issued "shortly".

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Sage member Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of research charity Wellcome Trust, told Today he backed publishing the membership of Sage, as well as the group’s advice and the minutes of its meetings.

He said: “I think transparency is right. I’m all in favour that the names of people on that group are made available to everybody, and indeed I would push very clearly for that advice to be made public from the start.

“Personally, I would make the minutes transparently available after a certain time.

“Transparency helps people to understand the uncertainty, the difficulty, the fact that the advice does have to change as the facts change.”

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