Cummings’s presence raises questions about the integrity of government decisions—and its other scientific advisersby Jill Rutter / April 26, 2020 / Leave a comment
This has been the week of meetings.
First came the accusation of absence: that the PM was asleep on the job at the start of the outbreak, holed up at Chequers when he let Matt Hancock chair five successive Covid COBRAs. He only took the wheel in the first week of March. No 10 protested—a bit too much—that PMs don’t always chair COBRAs. True—but if something is worth five COBRAs, it may well be worth the PM ducking his head in to check it’s all under control.
Second came the accusation of presence: that Dominic Cummings and another No 10 adviser sat in on SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) meetings. That matters because SAGE is supposed to be an expert group, giving independent scientific advice to government. It matters even more because the government’s mantra throughout the crisis has been that it is simply following “the science”—but “the science” was clearly giving changing answers through the critical period in March. The fear of course is that the intimidating presence of Cummings might have led the scientists to give the government more palatable and convenient advice than if they were allowed to deliberate Dom-free.
Cummings’s presence has sparked a heated debate. Former government chief scientific adviser David King made clear that he would not have allowed it to happen in his day. Others have suggested it is inconsistent with the 2010 principles of scientific advice to government, which were drawn up after Labour home secretary Alan Johnson sacked the chair of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs for his comments comparing the dangers of ecstasy to the dangers of horse riding. Those principles assert that scientific advice should be “free from political interference.”
Others, including former cabinet ministers like David Gauke (not a notable Cummings fan) and Damian Green, Theresa May’s former deputy who also worked in the No 10 Policy Unit, have suggested that this is nothing to get fussed about. One of the key roles of people working on policy in No 10 is to go to meetings, to understand what is going on—to “observe,” yes, but also to ask some questions and probe. After all, you will be one of the people advising the PM on the ultimate decision—which is taken by politicians,…