April 27, 2020 5.14 pm This story is over 50 months old

Barry Turner: Why we need to know who’s advising the government on the pandemic

Advice needs transparency

Where government advice affects the fundamental rights of all of us, we need to know where it is coming from. The latest controversy causing a commotion in the press is the discovery that the Prime Minister’s special advisor Dominic Cummings has been attending the meetings of the scientific advisory group appointed to inform the government on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Cummings has of course over the period since he was hired by Boris Johnson provided the press with a convenient target for all that is wrong about modern politics. Mr Cummings himself seems to have relished that from day one. It is a classic example of a red herring diverting attentions from where it really should be.

This current concern about the activities of Dominic Cummings is the latest manifestation of this. The implication being that Cummings and his data scientist fellow Brexiteer Ben Warner will be influencing the advice for political purposes. The startling naiveté of that completely misses the point that the purpose of SAGE is every bit as political as it is scientific. As Mrs Thatcher once famously said, ‘advisors advise, minsters decide’. Politicians govern Britain, not scientists.

The reality is we should have no concerns about Dominic Cummings and Brexit favouring scientists attending these meetings. SAGE is not about Brexit or about others of the more esoteric ideas of the PM’s special advisor. The issue is not those who we know are attending but those who we don’t know. Mr Cummings is very familiar to us, like him or loath him we know who and what he is.

The problem is those we do not know. It was decided at the appointment of the SAGE advisory group that those who did not want to be identified as being on it could maintain anonymity. While some have no problem being front and centre, others prefer the traditional British way of acting behind the scenes.

The majority of those advising the government on Covid-19 are, as we would expect, scientists and economists, a group of people not so long ago derided by ministers in the current government as ‘experts’. Experts are now of course completely rehabilitated and are rightly back in their place as advisors to the decision makers.

The press have their own image of scientists which often more resembles those found in Sci-Fi B-Movies rather than labs and lecture theatres. Scientists fall into the brackets of the mad-scientist as sidekick to all-powerful villains, or as selfless noble individuals striving for the good of mankind. We have become used to that after decades of climate change conflict enthusiastically encouraged by a febrile media.

The reality is of course quite different, scientists are people pure and simple. They are motivated by just the same aspirations and desires as the rest of us. Money and influence are just two of them and there are multiple ways of achieving these. It can be front and centre out in the open or it can be quietly as a grey eminence in the corridors of power. Where it is the latter, we need to exercise caution.

The government, it turns out, are acting on advice to give anonymity to those on SAGE who want it. While the majority of those in the group are known to us, others do not want to be. We are told that it is to protect them, and in particular to keep them safe from lobbyists who might be acting for financial or political purposes, seeking to gain an advantage from this catastrophic pandemic.

Once again, we have the element of naiveté. It should be well understood that many scientists are themselves the lobbyists, the ‘key opinion leaders’ sought out by so many corporations to promote their wares. This writer spent many years looking into the activities of scientists in the pharmaceutical industry during some of the darkest times of corruption in medical science. Scientists, like everyone else, are susceptible to vested interests and are just as likely to fail ethically from time to time.

Academics publishing in journals and giving papers at conferences must declare interests. Those reading the papers they produce have a right to know what might be motivating them. There is no intrinsic reason why those giving advice to SAGE should not be identifiable, so we can see whether they may have interests other than simply beating the coronavirus. If they want anonymity then there is no obligation on them to continue advising.

Criticism is already being levelled at the government for not keeping us properly informed. It will quite rightly increase if the necessary measures to protect the NHS and save lives are surrounded in unnecessary secrecy. The lockdown is dependent on trust and confidence, and nothing erodes that more than keeping us in the dark. That is the breeding ground of fake news and conspiracy theories. In recent history no event has needed the public’s cooperation like this one — let’s not threaten that cooperation with the veil of secrecy.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.