Top Google AI expert attended Sage meeting of Government scientific advisers about coronavirus

A top Google executive specialising in artificial intelligence joined the Government’s science experts at a top-level coronavirus meeting, it was revealed today.

Demis Hassabis, the founder and chief executive of the tech giant’s DeepMind operation, sat in on a meeting of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) last month.

His attendance at the invitation of Sir Patrick Vallance comes at a time when membership of the body remains largely a secret on security grounds, despite pleas for greater transparency.

His presence at the meeting will raise questions about how many private companies are involved in developing public policy and the UK’s response to the pandemic. 

Google is already believed to be working with the NHS on a contact tracing app due to be rolled out in May. 

A DeepMinds spokesman told the Guardian: ‘Demis was one of several scientists asked to contribute his thoughts on the government’s response to Covid-19.’

Demis Hassabis, the founder and chief executive of the tech giant's DeepMind project sat in on a meeting of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) last month

Demis Hassabis, the founder and chief executive of the tech giant’s DeepMind project sat in on a meeting of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) last month

Boris Johnson, pictured this morning, and other ministers have repeatedly stressed that the government's approach has been guided by expert advice

Boris Johnson, pictured this morning, and other ministers have repeatedly stressed that the government’s approach has been guided by expert advice

London-based DeepMind was swallowed up by Google owner Alphabet for £400 million in 2014. 

Three years later it was involved in a data protection breech involving a smartphone app pilot project with London’s Royal Free Hospital. But last year it was given the go-ahead to access five years’ worth of sensitive NHS patient data.

The internet giant was handed hospital records of thousands of patients in England, including medical history, diagnoses, treatment dates and ethnic origin, raising concerns about the privacy of the data.

It came as it was revealed Government scientific advisers fear ministers are trying to ‘pass the buck’ over the UK’s coronavirus response by constantly insisting decisions are driven by expert advice. 

Members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) are thought to be concerned ministers have gone too far in always referring to guidance because ultimately it is ‘political decisions’ which have dictated the approach to the outbreak.

Many senior figures in Whitehall now have one eye on the inevitable public inquiry into the government’s handling of the current crisis. 

That probe is likely to focus heavily on the substance of the advice handed to ministers, when it was made available to them, how the government responded to it and when it did so. 

The government’s early response to the outbreak is facing increasing scrutiny as critics ask why Boris Johnson failed to impose lockdown until March 23 despite experts warning of the disastrous consequences of failing to suppress the disease. 

But some members of the SAGE committee fear ministers are trying to 'pass the buck' over the government's response. SAGE member Professor Chris Whitty is pictured in Downing Street today

But some members of the SAGE committee fear ministers are trying to ‘pass the buck’ over the government’s response. SAGE member Professor Chris Whitty is pictured in Downing Street today

Mr Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock have relied heavily on advice from Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance during the crisis. The four are pictured in Downing Street on March 12

Mr Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock have relied heavily on advice from Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance during the crisis. The four are pictured in Downing Street on March 12

Professor Graham Medley, a SAGE member and chairman of its modelling sub-committee, told The Guardian it was always ultimately a ‘political decision’ about how to respond.

Senior ministers have repeatedly stressed throughout the crisis that all action has been guided and informed by expert advice. 

But there are some concerns that ministers are simply trying to shift the blame if things go wrong. 

Prof Medley said ministers’ public insistence they are following the advice has ‘sometimes gone a bit past the mark’. 

Asked if there was an element of politicians ‘passing the buck’, Prof Medley apparently replied: ‘Yes.’ 

SAGE is tasked by ministers with providing impartial answers and evidence to key questions. Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance both attend the group.

But the secrecy surrounding the group, with its membership and evidence not being routinely published, has sparked controversy. 

That controversy has only grown in recent days after it emerged Mr Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings had attended SAGE meetings. 

Number 10 insisted this was so he could be informed of the latest scientific thinking but some sources have claimed he was ‘more than a bystander’, prompting critics to ask just how impartial the SAGE advice is.

However, some on SAGE privately believe Mr Cummings’ presence was actually helpful because it meant important points could be guaranteed to be passed on to the Prime Minister. 

The relative lack of public information relating to SAGE’s coronavirus work means it is difficult to comprehensively assess the dynamic between the committee and government ministers. 

However, one paper from a SAGE sub-committee on March 2 did say it was ‘highly likely’ there was already ‘sustained transmission’ of the disease in the UK.

It warned that without restrictions some 80 per cent of the population could become infected. 

It also estimated the death rate could be up to one per cent which would have equated to 500,000 deaths.

The government subsequently moved to the delay and mitigate phases of its coronavirus response.

The government revealed new data showing the numbers of deaths inside and away from hospitals for the first time - but the seven-day average of deaths is falling

The government revealed new data showing the numbers of deaths inside and away from hospitals for the first time – but the seven-day average of deaths is falling

Yesterday's daily Downing Street briefing revealed the numbers of new cases of coronavirus in the UK, the numbers of intensive care beds in use and total hospitalisations

Yesterday’s daily Downing Street briefing revealed the numbers of new cases of coronavirus in the UK, the numbers of intensive care beds in use and total hospitalisations

But the messaging remained on the importance of washing hands even as other European nations started to impose more draconian measures.

The UK approach was already under fire after the World Health Organisation said testing was the key to tackling the spread of the disease but Britain’s testing efforts were underwhelming. 

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson had been accused of being a ‘part time’ prime minister after he spent an extended period at Chevening and failed to attend four of the first five Cobra coronavirus meetings. 

It was in the middle of March that the government appeared to switch its approach from one of trying to slow the spread and obtain ‘herd immunity’ to one of aggressively suppressing the disease. 

On March 13 Sir Patrick said the ‘aim’ was to reduce the peak of the outbreak and also ‘because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity’. 

The government has always rejected the suggestion that it was pursuing a strategy of ‘herd immunity’. 

The WHO had declared coronavirus a pandemic on March 11 but major gatherings were still going ahead across the UK. 

Thousands of people visited Cheltenham Festival between March 10-13 while Athletico Madrid fans descended on Liverpool for a Champion’s League game on March 11.

On March 12 the government did start to ramp up its approach as it urged the elderly not to go on cruises and suggested more measures were in the works. 

The main point of change is widely believed to have been the publication of modelling on March 16 by Professor Neil Ferguson which suggested a mitigation approach could result in 250,000 deaths and the NHS being overwhelmed. 

Professor Ferguson told The Guardian the way ahead was up to ministers: ‘While policy can be guided by scientific advice, that does not mean scientific advisers determine policy.’  

The government maintained that all action needed to be taken at the right time as they warned of potential social distancing ‘fatigue’. 

Essentially they argued that people would eventually get tired of restrictions so the timing needed to be right in order to get the maximum benefit from them.

But behavioural scientists on one of Sage’s sub committees apparently never referred to ‘fatigue’ in official reports because it is ‘not a concept that exists in behavioural science’ and ministers choosing to use it was ‘unhelpful’. 

Conversation in Whitehall increasingly turned to when a state of lockdown would be imposed. 

The Cabinet was split on timing and the severity of the measures amid fears of what a lengthy shutdown could do to the economy. 

Eventually lockdown was imposed by Mr Johnson on March 23 before the government’s own adherence to social distancing was put under the spotlight as the PM and Health Secretary Matt Hancock both tested positive for the disease on March 27. 

A Downing Street spokesman rejected criticisms of its approach and said: ‘This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided by the best scientific advice.’    

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