No 10 facing fresh calls for transparency over Sage pandemic advice | World news

Downing Street is facing fresh calls for transparency about the expert advice it receives after it published the names of 50 experts who sit on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which discusses how to handle the coronavirus epidemic.

The list of names, which is not complete, was released after critics raised questions about the secrecy of Sage and the Guardian revealed that Boris Johnson’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings, had played an active role in Sage meetings.

The group’s membership and the nature of its advice have come under scrutiny, with critics arguing that Britain has botched key aspects of its pandemic response even as ministers claimed they were following “the best science”.

The list contains the bulk of the Sage membership as well as the names of experts who sit on subgroups that specialise in issues such as outbreak modelling, behavioural science and the spread of infection in schools and hospitals.

The list includes 24 instances of people asking for their names not to be made public, though some may be duplicates, as experts can sit on more than one group. Two members of Sage asked not to be named.

Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser, has warned that the purity of the scientific advice reaching the prime minister is being put at risk by the presence of political appointees such as Cummings. He said publication of the names was “a good first step” but not enough to reassure people.

“What we want to see is what Sage is discussing, what their advice is, what the advice of the scientists is as distinct from that of the strategy advisers. It’s certainly a good step, but there’s a lot more to be done,” he said. On Monday, King convened the first open meeting of an “independent Sage” group, with a dozen experts whose names were made public beforehand.

Around half of the members of Sage are scientific advisers from government departments, public health officials and senior NHS staff, with the other half coming from universities, the list shows.

The members include David Halpern, head of the Cabinet Office’s behavioural insights team, or “nudge unit”, Prof Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, who attends as chair of the society’s Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (Delve) Group, and Prof David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University.

The government stated that while the meetings were “regularly attended by officials from Her Majesty’s government”, their names were excluded from the publication list, though it did not explain why.

The advisory group is co-chaired by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser and Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer. The names were not made public before, Vallance has said, because of concerns over members’ personal security and fears of outside influence.

James Wilsdon, digital science professor of research policy at Sheffield University, said publication of the names was “a welcome step” adding that “openness and transparency must now become the default operating mode across the Sage process”.

“Too much rests on the interpretation of evidence, dilemmas and uncertainties in this crisis for the process to take place behind closed doors,” he said. “We’re in a situation of what some call ‘post-normal’ science, where the facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high and decisions are urgent.

“We need Sage to respond accordingly, start treating the public as grown-ups, and throw open its workings to wider engagement, debate and scrutiny,” he added.

Philip Bath, professor of stroke medicine at Nottingham University, said: “It is very important to see who is involved in Sage and its supporting groups so that the public know who is involved, their expertise and whether they are representative of the population in respect of geography and protected characteristics.”

He said he was struck by how many of the experts came from the “golden triangle” of London, Oxford and Cambridge, and why experts were not drawn from around the UK. He said the list should be improved by naming each expert’s “base speciality”, including for those who did not agree to be named.

Derek Hill, an expert in medicine and medical device regulation at University College London, said that given the importance of medical devices in dealing with Covid-19, from personal protective equipment to temperature sensors to ventilators, Sage appeared to lack expertise on medical devices and the regulatory system.

“This is very relevant as it impacts the risk associated with implementing some aspects of Sage advice, which should be captured in such advice. Such experts are likely to have an engineering background, and are likely to have experience in industries well as academia,” he said.

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