The independent London newspaper

Beware of power exercised in secret

01 May, 2020 — By John Gulliver

A SAGE gathering: but why is it cloaked in secrecy? Illustration:

A GREAT mystery hangs over who exactly are the members of the scientific team that has been advising the government during the Covid-19 crisis – and who said what during their discussions.

You would think this should be automatically made public as the nation faces its biggest crisis since the Second World War.

But officialdom in Britain draws its strength from secrecy – the public is rarely allowed to see who pulls which levers. Secrecy seems ingrained in our system of government.

By contrast, in many ways the US is a more open society – there, journalists take it for granted that they are entitled to have access to government departments.

The mystery of membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was only partially punctured a few days ago when the Guardian revealed it never published minutes nor disclosed who was on it.

An equally stunning revelation was that Dominic Cummings, the controversial political adviser to the Prime Minister, attended meetings of SAGE and that last year a warning by scientists that the nation should be prepared for a possible pandemic was ignored by the government.

Dominic Cummings

Not only that, but apparently the warning was set out in a 600-page document. And what is strange about that is somehow no one in the sieve-like world of parliamentary politics leaked any part of the bulging document. Why?

As the public glare turns on SAGE more will no doubt be revealed about it. We know little except it is chaired by the government’s chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance, by now a familiar figure at Whitehall’s daily press conferences. But beyond that the mystery remains.

Yet all the policies that have swung to-and-fro in the past month, one cancelling out the other, have been based on advice from this secret organisation – from a policy of “herd immun­ity”, that would allow the disease to run its course through the population, to an opposite one of curbing its transmission with a lockdown.

But other mysteries persist.

We know Sir Jeremy Farrar, an authority on epidemiology and director of the Wellcome Trust, based in Euston, is a government adviser. We know too that great faith is placed by No 10 on the researchers of Imperial College and Oxford University. Yet, hardly in the public eye, is the great medical research facility the Sir Francis Crick Institute, which is recognised as one of Britain’s leading centres – a striking modern architectural gem that stands in Midland Road, next to St Pancras Station.

It is undoubtedly playing its part in the battle against Covid-19 and is carrying out tests for the disease on medical staff attached to London University but there would be many in the scientific field who may wonder why it is not in a more prominent position.

The government claims it is acting on scientific advice. It parades scientists as independent experts before the cameras. But behind closed doors another world exists, with decisions taken without any public involvement, a world where the public are not welcome.


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