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Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 28 April 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will publish details of the membership and attendees of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) that have been advising the Government during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

Good afternoon, my Lords. SAGE is not a membership body. Only the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer can talk on behalf of SAGE. The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who chairs SAGE, said yesterday morning that he would publish the names of participants who were happy to be named in the coming days. This will allow for full transparency on who is contributing to the scientific advice being given to the Government.

My Lords, I understood the Minister to say that we would indeed know the attendance and membership of SAGE—although I have to say that the technology was defeating me slightly. I am sure that he agrees that getting through this pandemic depends on transparency and trust: trust between people and the Government, and between government and opposition parties; transparency in explaining why decisions to lock down are necessary, why we need to stay in lockdown and, when appropriate, how the Government plan to ease restrictions. Will the Government publish the scientific advice on which their decisions are based? How does the Minister propose that public trust in the independence of SAGE should be restored after the last few days of speculation?

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness about transparency. I can give her a commitment that the minutes of the SAGE meetings will be published at the end of the pandemic in line with normal procedure. The Chief Scientific Adviser has agreed that the names of those participants who wish to be named will be published in the coming days.

My Lords, almost to the day, 34 years ago the Chernobyl nuclear disaster kicked off. In retrospect, the Soviet expert scientific committee was shown to be slow to react, driven by political apparatchiks rather than scientists. We saw the same in Wuhan. We are told by the newspapers that, of the 23 members of SAGE, 13 are paid advisers. Does the Minister agree that, to get the best advice, scientific committees such as SAGE should be left to independent scientists and should not include political advisers?

I agree. As I said in my Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, SAGE is not a membership body. The number of participants varies from meeting to meeting. There have been over 100 participants in all of the 29 meetings that have taken place on the Covid pandemic. It is up to the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer to invite the appropriate academics and advisers to each meeting. The number and names of participants vary from meeting to meeting.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that science is a matter of doubt, not certainty, and that it is therefore extremely important that the Government understand the way in which scientists have reached their conclusions, just as it is important that scientists understand in detail the way that the Government are thinking?

I agree with my noble friend that transparency in the process is important in helping to maintain the public’s trust and to grow understanding of the disease, while also helping to explain how the advice to the Government is being formed during this difficult time.

On the one hand, the relaying of professional opinions—and, importantly, how those opinions have been arrived at—to decision-makers via trusted channels that have immediate access does, I believe, have merit. However, will the Government dispel any doubts that crucial considerations by those professionals are not in any way interfered with, influenced or diluted for political expediency, and that the distinction between observation and participation is being strictly adhered to?

SAGE is an apolitical body. It helps the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser to fulfil his role to ensure that the Government have access to the best possible science advice in a rapid and timely manner. As I said earlier, the participants at SAGE depend on the nature of the emergency, but it typically includes leading experts from within government and leading specialists from academia and industry.

My Lords, on the “Today” programme this morning, a Government Minister was asked why, in trumpeting the number of items of PPE equipment that he claimed had been delivered to the front line, a pair of gloves was counted as two items. He responded robotically with the mantra, “We are following the scientific advice.” I cannot believe that SAGE has opined on pairs of gloves, but this demonstrates that Ministers are using SAGE as a sort of human shield. That makes it all the more important that SAGE and its discussions are as transparent as possible. Will the noble Lord tell us whether the Government will bring forward the publication of a full note of the discussions of each meeting, ideally within 24 hours of the meeting finishing? If not, will he tell us why this is impossible?

I agree with the noble Lord that transparency, including on the evidence informing the views of SAGE, is important in helping to maintain the public’s trust and helping to grow understanding of the disease. As I said earlier, and as is normal procedure except in cases of national security, the minutes of SAGE will be published at the end of the pandemic.

My Lords, the Government have said that they are following the science, but SAGE does not include people from three very relevant sciences: public health, social science and molecular virology. Why not? Does the Prime Minister read the full minutes of SAGE? If not, who briefs him? Is it the Chief Medical Officer or is it Dominic Cummings, whose understanding of the deliberations may be very different?

As I said earlier, SAGE does not have a specific membership. The people attending SAGE vary depending on the subjects under discussion; something like 100 participants in total can be called on. BEIS holds a central list of appropriate experts in the different sciences, academia and industry. They are brought into particular meetings when their expertise is required, and that is the call of the Chief Medical Officer and the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser.

My Lords, as the Minister will be aware, the process of providing scientific advice is set out in the Government’s chief scientist’s guidelines. Three key principles of these guidelines are: an open and transparent approach; a full acknowledgement of uncertainty; and to draw on a wide range of expert advice. What is the Minister’s assessment of how well these guidelines are being applied during the Covid-19 epidemic?

The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser is confident that the role of SAGE is clear, that the business is conducted in an appropriately transparent and open manner, that the group is scientifically rigorous —having, as I said, more than 100 scientists ultimately feeding into it—and that it is totally independent of political interference.

Is the Minister aware of the criticism of SAGE’s composition from Professor Anthony Costello, a former director of WHO? As he points out, it does not include front-line experts on the pandemic, such as those in public health, primary care and intensive care. If it had done, maybe SAGE would have recommended to the Government community testing and contact tracing of the kind that has been very successful in other countries and that we simply have not implemented either on the scale needed or early enough.

The committee includes many of the experts in all those fields. They are brought in, as recommended by the Chief Scientific Adviser, when their expertise in particular fields is required. There is a large, centrally held list of experts in all the appropriate fields. Of course, SAGE meets on other issues than Covid. On the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser, the appropriate experts are brought in to advise the Government when that is required.

Sorry, can the noble Baroness please repeat her question? I do not know whether there is a problem with my connection but I could not quite hear her.

Today, the media reported that face coverings will now be recommended for the public, yet they were ruled out last week by SAGE. This raises the question of why advice continues to change constantly.

The noble Baroness should really direct that question to the Chief Scientific Adviser. This is a changeable pandemic. The science is changing and is being updated. Scientists will respond to the advice as necessary. Of course, the politics are driven by that scientific advice. She should not necessarily criticise the scientists if, in the light of new information, they decide that a new approach is needed. We should be responsive to that and thank them for their help.

You did. I want to comment on the question about Dominic Cummings. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that anyone who has worked in No. 10 knows that the better informed the Prime Minister’s personal staff can be on background policy decisions, the more use they are to the Prime Minister?

I totally agree. It is entirely right that No. 10 advisers—and, indeed, advisers and officials from other government departments—attend, to understand better the scientific debate and the decisions that then need to be taken. Surely we should all welcome a proper understanding of the science helping to drive the ultimate political decisions.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.