Secrecy was 'a catastrophic mistake'

Dom said it. And as Britain teeters on 'knife edge', it's still true now

‘There’s absolutely no doubt at all that the process by which SAGE was secret, and overall the whole thinking around the strategy was secret, was an absolutely catastrophic mistake’ - Dominic Cummings, May 26, 2021

It’s 14 months too late and 150,000 people are dead but he got there in the end. The secrecy around SAGE, the lack of transparency around data and the total mystery of the science the government claimed to be following *was* a catastrophic mistake. This is absolutely true. We’ve been saying it constantly since March 2020.

But there’s an even bigger problem. It still is.

The government’s secrecy is still a huge threat to public health.

This newsletter is going out later than we wanted (apologies) because on Friday, with the help of new data rights firm, AWO, we sent Public Health England a pre-action letter.

At the same time that Cummings was giving evidence to parliament on the catastrophe so far, we realised we were in a situation where government secrecy was again causing a threat to life. And so, we scrambled to try and do something about it.

The back story is that teachers and parents and unions have been demanding data on the spread of the so-called Indian variant in schools for weeks. The Guardian reports today that this new variant has put the country on a ‘knife edge’. We may be on the cusp of the worst wave yet.

And absolutely central to what is going on with transmission is what is going on in schools. And yet, even as the variant has spread, with more cases in school-age children than any other age group, the government has repeatedly refused to publish this crucial data on schools.

Then on 23 May, I reported in the Observer on evidence that suggested PHE had not only removed a page of data about the spread of the new variant in schools from its latest report, but that it had done so under pressure from Number 10.

The idea that Public Health England might be withholding vital public health information at what is potentially another tipping moment in the pandemic, at the request of the Prime Minister’s office, is fundamentally unacceptable. And yet, we’ve had no choice but to accept it.

Unions have been been ignored. Scientists have been sidelined. Parents have no voice. We’re pleased to have worked on this with Deepti Gurdasani, a senior lecturer in machine learning at Queen Mary University, who’s been a passionate advocate for why we desperately need this data. And here’s Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at UCL. She is very much not a ranter. But this is what she has to say about it.

We’ve seen where this lack of transparency has led too many times and so we decided to take action. Read the Independent’s account here. It’s extraordinary that this is what it’s come to.

We know this is a threat to life. And yet we still can’t get the data. The government now has until Friday to respond.

Thank you…

…to the legal team who helped at short notice with this. It was a huge team effort with lawyers Cassie Roddy and Ravi Naik (the campaigning lawyer who helped Professor David Carroll challenge Cambridge Analytica) at data rights firm AWO and advice from Aidan Wills, a barrister at Matrix Chambers.

Why we’re here…

So many of the reasons why we set up the Citizens came together last week.

Here’s Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry, citing the joint investigative work of Byline Times and the Citizens in her question to Cummings on Wednesday about £1 billion in government contracts going to Conservative donors since the start of the pandemic.

Cummings’s testimony confirms our conviction that we need to find new ways of holding power to account. We live in an age when the Prime Minister lies with total impunity. When tens of thousands of people have died as a direct result of the government’s secrecy and lies, as even Cummings says now. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

Just as, at the start of the pandemic, it didn’t matter how many times scientists demanded to see the science behind the government’s decisions, the data, the evidence, the names of those on SAGE.

Which is why we’ve supported Independent Sage from the very beginning

On Wednesday morning, just as Dominic Cummings was about to give evidence to parliament, we launched a trailer for a documentary we’ve filmed about Independent SAGE.

The timing was not a coincidence. It was the revelation in the Guardian on 24 April, 2020 that Cummings was sitting on SAGE that prompted outrage from the scientific community, including the former Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, and ultimately led to the formation of a ‘shadow SAGE’.

(My slightly less restrained tweet that same day.)

Sir David King’s response was to call the first meeting of Independent SAGE. The full story of how and why this happened - don’t worry it’s still only a crisp 14 minutes - by filmmaker Sheridan Flynn is now up on YouTube.

I’d urge you to watch it. It includes the scientists who’ve since become such well-known faces, but also input from Caroline Lucas and Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy and it’s been a labour of love for Sheridan who has been live streaming Independent SAGE’s briefings on Twitter and YouTube ever since the very first meeting on 4 May, 2020.

Something else happened on 4 May, 2020.

Coincidence? We think not.

We’re incredibly proud of our work supporting Independent SAGE. The weekly briefings are now watched by about 10k people per week on YouTube and more again on Twitter. You can support their work here.

The catastrophic secrecy of Dominic Cummings

While Dominic Cummings is absolutely right about the catastrophic secrecy around the science, he has yet to get to grips with Dominic Cummings’ catastrophic secrecy around Dominic Cummings.

It’ll take weeks to unpick this. But here’s a taster. While giving testimony on Wednesday, you might have heard Cummings mention someone called Ben Warner once, twice, or by our count, 24 times. Most colourfully, when Cummings described the scene in Downing Street on 13 March as ‘like a scene from Independence Day…with Ben Warner in the Jeff Goldblum role’.

And then there’s Marc Warner, who crops up a mere 12 times but whom Cummings said that he would have made ‘dictator’ if he’d been in charge.

You might reasonably be asking ‘Who are Ben and Marc Warner?’ There is much to say. The short answer is that Marc Warner runs a tech company called Faculty AI and Ben Warner, until this week, worked in the Cabinet Office. But there’s a whole lot more to this, not least their friendship with Dominic Cummings, the multiple government contracts that Faculty AI has won, and what they’re doing with NHS data.

We’re desperately concerned about what the government is planning to do with our personal health records and a crucial deadline is looming as the Financial Times pointed out in an important leading article last week.

There’s a much deeper back story to all this. The now famous Ben and Marc Warner worked - in secret - on Dominic Cummings’s Vote Leave Brexit campaign.

It’s now a matter of record that Faculty modelled the data for Dominic Cummings’s Vote Leave campaign. But it wasn’t in 2017. The only references in any of the thousands and thousands of words Dominic Cummings had written about the campaign was to three un-named physicists described as ‘experts in computation, physics and data science’.

Who were these physicists? Nobody knew. In the summer of 2017, I spent quite literally hundreds of hours trying to figure it out, including reading the entire corpus of Dominic Cummings’s blog. This helped spur me on:

We figured it out in the end. Step forward the Warner brothers. But the questions about what Cummings did that data have never been answered. And now there are many more questions: what is the government doing with our data? What is the involvement of private contractors? What can we do about any of it? Watch this space.

(You will be shocked - shocked! - to learn that Dominic Cummings deleted his Twitter account shortly after we bust open that particular mystery. A huge tranche of evidence disappeared forever. A reminder of why receipt-keeping is so important to us. If you’re interested, Jon Worth pieced together a bit of his old account here.)

The art of cronyism

On 21 May the annual Sunday Times Rich List was released online without any of the usual fanfare. Given the revelation that more people became billionaires in the last year than at any point in British history, it’s perhaps not surprising they wanted to keep the launch low-key.

We had other ideas. This was perhaps a little less low-key.

Meanwhile, our very own Daisy Bata and Max Colbert reported for the Byline Times how a third of the billionaires on the Sunday Times Rich List had donated almost £62 million to the Conservative party.

They’re part of the team helping us with Keeping the Receipts and if you pay to subscribe, you’re helping to support this work. Thanks so much to those of you who already do.

Finally, we’ve got our subscriber-only event with Jed Mercurio, the superbrain behind the BBC superhit, Line of Duty, coming up fast. We’ll be sending details out soon.

And finally, finally…you can now own a copy of Boris the vulture, an extraordinary piece of political art by Citizen X, thanks to our collaboration with the great Jealous Gallery, who have turned it into a high-quality archival inkjet signed print. You can buy it here. £10 of each print sold will go towards supporting our work.

To everyone who kept us company on Twitter during Wednesday’s hearing - we’re at @allthecitizens - or who subscribed to this newsletter or supported one of our legal actions or read or shared one of our investigations, THANK YOU!

Hope you had a great bank holiday, Carole xx