April 24, 2020 / 7:32 PM / a month ago

UK PM Johnson's aide Cummings attended coronavirus experts' meeting - Guardian

LONDON, April 24 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s most senior aide, Dominic Cummings, took part in meetings of a scientific panel that has shaped the British response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Guardian reported on Friday.

Cummings is a particularly polarising figure in British politics and his involvement in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) drew immediate criticism from opposition parties who said it undermined the group’s credibility.

Cummings has been attending SAGE meetings since February, the Guardian said, citing other attendees.

He was present at one meeting on March 23, the day Johnson announced the most far-reaching peacetime restrictions on British daily life, pivoting sharply from a previously much less proactive strategy that lagged European peers.

Cummings, a key architect of the successful campaign to leave the European Union ahead of a 2016 referendum, is reviled by his critics for what they say were ruthless tactics that rode roughshod over the facts.

Since being appointed as Johnson’s closest adviser inside Downing Street, he has also caused alarm among some civil servants who see him as an anti-system figure intent on disrupting the usual way of doing things.

The government has repeatedly stressed it followed scientific advice on handling the coronavirus outbreak, but faces growing criticism that its initial response was too slow.

By convention, it has not named members of the SAGE committee.

“Expert participants often vary for each meeting according to which expertise is required. A number of representatives from government departments and No. 10 attend also,” a statement from Johnson’s office said.

The Guardian said participants had told them Cummings and another government adviser had actively participated in the discussion about forming advice. Johnson’s office did not comment when asked to confirm what role Cummings had played.

“He is a political adviser, not a medical or scientific expert,” said Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s health policy spokesman.

“If the public are to have confidence in the SAGE, the government must make clear Dominic Cummings can no longer participate or attend.”

Guidelines for SAGE published on the government website show membership should include representatives from a “wide range of scientific and technical specialities” and that the body “should not overly rely on specific experts”.

They also say SAGE should “include the most appropriate, rather than the most accessible experts”. (Reporting by William James and Andy Bruce, editing by Estelle Shirbon)

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