No 10 advisers at Sage meetings: key questions that need answering | World news

1) Who decided Dominic Cummings and Ben Warner should attend Sage meetings and why?

The government has not disputed that this is the first time Downing Street political advisers have attended Sage meetings and asked questions at them. No 10 argues that the unprecedented scale of the coronavirus pandemic made it necessary. However, the government’s policies say scientific committees such as Sage should be politically neutral. Sage meetings are chaired by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. However, a government spokesperson said Vallance “would not have to sign off” on observers or representatives from government departments. So who decided they should attend, and why and when was the decision made?

2) Which Sage meetings did Cummings and Warner attend, and what did they say?

In a letter to parliament, Vallance said Sage was meeting about twice a week to provide scientific advice to the Cabinet Office about Covid-19. It met twice in January, nine times in February and 10 times in March. The dates of more recent meetings have not been disclosed. Downing Street has said Cummings and Warner attended “some” meetings, but has not specified which. It has also played down their contributions, saying they “occasionally” ask questions or “offer help when scientists mention problems in Whitehall”. That contrasts with the accounts of Sage committee members, who told the Guardian they were active participants in meetings as far back as February. So what, exactly, were their contributions?

3) Why was Ben Warner attending meetings?

While much attention has focused on the attendance of Cummings, there have been fewer questions about Warner, a data scientist who was reportedly recruited to Downing Street late last year after running the Conservative party’s general election campaign model. Warner previously worked with Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit. Warner’s brother, Marc Warner, runs Faculty, an artificial intelligence company involved in an “unprecedented” data-mining operation as part of the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Ben Warner also used to work at his brother’s AI company.

4) If political advisers can attend and ask questions, why not chief scientists and chief medical officers from the devolved governments?

If this emergency is so severe it requires political appointees from Downing Street to attend and ask questions, why does it appear that chief scientists and chief medical officers – or their equivalents from the devolved governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Stormont – were not given the same influence? The Guardian understands that these officials had observer status at Sage meetings and, unlike Cummings and Warner, could only ask questions in advance, in writing.

The Guardian is investigating how the UK government prepared for – and is responding to – the coronavirus pandemic. We want to learn more about recent decisions taken at the heart of government. If you’re a whistleblower or source and with new information, you can email [email protected], or (using a non-work phone) use Signal or WhatsApp to message (UK) +44 7584 640566.

5) Will the government now publish a full list of attendees at all Sage meetings?

Critics of the secret decision to allow Cummings and Warner to take part argue this has greatly undermined public confidence in the role and independence of Sage. Many scientists, including past and present members of Sage, already believed the names of those who take part in Sage should be published. Vallance has said the “decision not to disclose” membership of the committee was based 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 said. Dominic Raab has said the government has no plans to publish the list of participants.

6) Did any participants in Sage feel swayed by questions from Cummings or Warner?

One of the main concerns about the attendance of someone as influential as Cummings is that his presence and questions may have swayed scientific advisers. As the prime minister’s famously influential chief adviser, a contribution from Cummings, even in the form of a question, is likely to have carried significant weight in Sage meetings. As the former Brexit secretary David Davis told Sky News: “There’s a thing called the Heisenberg principle, which says you can’t observe something without influencing it.”

7) What did Cummings tell the prime minister after each Sage meeting?

The former chief scientific adviser Sir David King, one of the most outspoken critics of the decision to include Cummings in Sage meetings, said that the political adviser, who is not a scientist, could report back to the prime minister his own interpretation of the scientific meeting. “Those discussions would be quite complex in terms of the science. Wrong person to be briefing the prime minister, absolutely”. Has Cummings been giving Boris Johnson his own interpretation of science around the coronavirus? And if so, how has that differed from Sage’s official advice?

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