The identities of many of the scientists dictating Britain’s strategy in combating coronavirus are being kept secret for their own protection, the Government said on Tuesday, but the refusal to disclose their names has fuelled concern over a lack of transparency in the handling of the pandemic.
Well-placed sources insisted security concerns surrounding the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) prevented those invited to attend its meetings from being named.
The identities of academics who sit on Sage sub-groups have also been removed from the internet in recent days for their own safety.
It is understood that a number of scientists have received death threats, either because those threatening them feel the lockdown is too draconian or that it was implemented too slowly.
But the lack of transparency – with Sage meetings held behind closed doors and no minutes available – will ring alarm bells amid concern that the Government has got key policies wrong in tackling the spread of coronavirus.
On Tuesday, the campaigning charity Sense About Science said academics shaping Downing Street’s policies should be identified, with the minutes of behind closed doors minutes published and the data made public.
Tracey Brown, the organisation’s director, expressed scepticism that security concerns required a blanket ban on naming all scientists involved, saying: “I don’t think it’s a valid explanation to hide behind their security.
“We are deeply concerned with the lack of transparency in the way decisions are being made over coronavirus. The Government is not showing the same trust in the public that the public is showing in Government.”
Eminent scientists have predicted that the UK could record the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, while the Office for Budget Responsibility has warned that the economy could shrink by 35 per cent if the lockdown remains in place until June.
Sage is the principal adviser to the Government on how to tackle coronavirus and determine the emergence from lockdown. Chaired by Sir Patrick Vallance, the country’s chief scientific adviser, it met on Tuesday to review the measures and is expected to tell the Government to keep social distancing in place for at least a further three weeks.
It is also expected to consider a change in the policy on wearing face masks in public at another meeting on Thursday. The Government has so far resisted calls for the public to wear masks in shops and pharmacies, but may reverse that policy if it concludes that the move will reduce Covid-19 transmission.
However, The Telegraph has been told the Government will not alter its advice on masks after an official scientific review found they were ineffective in stopping the spread of the virus.
The UK’s senior scientific advisers concluded there was minimal benefit to wearing paper masks and none at all to wearing masks made of cloth. They remain concerned that wearing protective coverings could give false security and encourage people with coronavirus symptoms to venture out into public areas.
The Government has come under pressure to make masks compulsory in food stores and in pharmacies, or at least alter official guidance to advise their use, but academics on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) concluded masks “were a step too far”.
Some 50 to 60 scientists, including epidemiologists, virologists and mathematicians, are invited to attend Sage’s twice-weekly meetings, but their identities are kept hidden and the meetings are held behind closed doors.
A well-placed source said: “There is a duty of care that the Government has to the scientists involved with Sage. In the interests of their security, they are not being named. There have already been incidents of people involved in Sage and its sub-committees being threatened.”
The source said death threats had been sent to members of advisory groups feeding into Sage, prompted in part by reports that the Government had embarked on a “herd immunity” strategy in which tens of millions of people needed to be infected in the UK to prevent Covid-19 resurfacing every few months.
“It’s a combination [of people who are angry at the lockdown] and also this concept of herd immunity,” the source said. “A lot of people are under the misapprehension that all the scientists want people to die in order to protect the masses.”
The two-hour Sage meetings are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, beginning at 11am and conducted virtually through the conferencing platform Zoom. Discussions are held in secret and advice relayed back to Cobra, which is typically chaired by the Prime Minister, his deputy or the Health Secretary.
There is no set membership of Sage, and invitations are sent out by Sir Patrick and his team depending on the emergency and the stage it is at.
As with Cobra, Sage declines to publish a list of those who attended, although some scientists have identified themselves as key Sage advisers. A series of smaller committees feed information into Sage and, in recent days, membership details of at least one has been withdrawn from the public domain.
Sage has been established for some years and was involved in advising the Government on the clear-up of Salisbury after nerve agent Novichok was deployed in the attempted assassination of a Russian double agent.