Publishing Sage membership would ‘increase public confidence’ in government, agrees Whitty
And revealing minutes of experts’ meetings would help keep ministers honest, says former business secretary
Making known the membership of government’s Scientific Advice Group for Emergencies (Sage) and the evidence it provides to ministers would increase public confidence, Professor Chris Whitty has agreed.
England’s chief medical officer was responding to questions from MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee about the secrecy surrounding the body.
Prof Whitty said neither he, nor Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, were opposed “in principle” to membership of Sage being revealed, and that scientific papers used as the basis for advice given to ministers should be published ”wherever possible” – taking into account any security issues.
Published evidence about the current coronavirus crisis is available on the government’s website.
Prof Whitty said: ”Neither of us have any problem in principle with the names being made public, many people talk about their own work on Sage perfectly legitimately.
“I’m on Sage, he’s on Sage, all of this is perfectly open, but we were given quite clear advice from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure basically based on the fact that Sage is a sub-committee of Cobra and meets under a range of circumstances, some of which are very security-related, this is not.
“The principle needed to be thought through quite carefully. Absolutely no barrier though from me or from Sir Patrick in principle.”
He added: “The idea that it’s secret I think is rather strong. I think it’s not published, I suspect most members are actually known one way or another and all of the sub-committees are extremely open.”
Greg Clark, the former business secretary, was chairing the virtual committee meeting. He said it would boost confidence to know who was in Sage and what evidence they were using, subject to security concerns. Such a move would be “in keeping with the tradition of science of robust scrutiny and openness”, he said.
He added: ”And, to refer to the Scottish model, to be able to see the minutes published so that we can know whether, when the government maintains that it’s following scientific advice, that actually accords with the advice that’s been given.”
Prof Whitty replied: “I agree.”
The senior scientist also used the health committee meeting to sound a warning on the effect Covid-19 will have on deprived areas of the UK. If the pandemic has prolonged negative economic effects then deprivation will create its own health problems, he said.
Adding: “This is absolutely within the scope of Sage and we’ve looked at this, is we all know that there is a gradient between health and deprivation and if as a result of economic downturns for prolonged periods, deprivation increases, that will have a health effect.”