As row over Dominic Cummings' role at SAGE meetings rumbles on, what exactly is this secret group all about?
The Government is facing increasing pressure to reveal more about the advisory group Sage after it was reported that Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings had attended meetings on Covid-19.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, to give it its full title, is referenced on a daily basis by both minsters and experts from both medical and scientific disciplines, as they discuss the pandemic.
But it has faced criticism for not disclosing the names of the scientists involved, beyond that of its chairman, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
Here, we take a look at what we do know about Sage.
What is Sage and how does it work?
The group provides scientific and technical advice to support decision makers during emergencies.
The make-up of experts can change depending on the nature of the emergency, meaning there is no membership.
The objective is to “get the right expertise around the table to come up with a consensus view”, according to Professor Sir Ian Boyd, who attended Sage meetings in the past.
How do experts join Sage?
Sir Ian, who was chief scientific adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from September 2012 to August 2019, and was involved in advising the Government after the Novichok poisonings in Salisbury in 2018, explained: “There’s a pool of experts, and those people from within that pool, who are relevant to a particular topic will be called on at any particular time.
“What happens is that you get an email through or you get a calendar invite through which is a calling notice that says there’s going to be a Sage at a particular time you’re invited to attend, and here’s the agenda.”
He added that participation is voluntary.
Should the names of the scientific advisers be shared with the public?
In a letter to Parliament earlier this month, Sir Patrick Vallance, the current chief scientific adviser who chairs Sage, said the decision not to disclose its membership was based on advice from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI).
He said that it helped safeguard the personal security of members while protecting them from ‘lobbying and other forms of unwanted influence which may hinder their ability to give impartial advice’.
However, the chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty – who is also a member of the group, told MPs on Friday that neither he nor Sir Patrick had any objection ‘in principle’ to details of the membership being released.
Giving evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, he said the CPNI advice was based on the fact that Sage was a sub-committee of Cobra – the Government’s civil contingencies committee – and sometimes dealt with security-related issues.
Sir Ian said there is an assumption of confidentiality, and it is also important to ensure that the scientific advice and evidence is not influenced by outside sources.
What are the dangers to the evidence being influenced?
Sir Ian said: “There’s an immense amount of interest outside from people who would love to get inside, and change what Sage is saying, and that must never ever be allowed to happen.
“Otherwise, the trust in the whole process will just evaporate.”
Is the way Sage currently works the best way for it to work?
“I think it is not ideal. In an ideal world you’d have complete transparency, but it’s not an ideal world,” said Sir Ian.
“There’s a lot of what I would call dark forces who are trying to undermine the validity of the way that science works and as a result of that Sage has to be conducted in a way that makes sure that they don’t have that opportunity.
“And it’s difficult, and I don’t think anybody who sits on Sage or chairs Sage really wants it that way.
“But on the other hand, there is no real option other than to do it that way.”
Is the Government portraying the right image of Sage?
Sir Ian said he always told ministers it was very dangerous for them to say ‘I will follow the science’.
Explaining why, he continued: “Because essentially what that is doing is shifting the decision making role from them to the scientific advisers.
“And it would be it would be better if they said ‘I will be strongly advised by the science’ or something of that type.
“Because actually, science isn’t the only thing that we use in decision making.
“There are lots of other factors, political factors, policy based factors, economic factors, social factors, and there are international relationship factors.”