Ministers who have been criticized by one of the world’s foremost scientists attempted to sack him from the government’s Covid Advisory Committee, leaked news shows.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), was branded “worse than useless” by Matt Hancock, who demanded of his permanent secretary, “Can we fire him?”.
He also described Sir Jeremy, now the World Health Organization’s (WHO) foremost scientist, as “completely on the sidelines” and a “complete loudmouth” who “has little respect among serious scientists”.
Sir Jeremy, who was also director of the UK’s largest medical research charity, Wellcome Trust at the time, had made public the government’s decision to close Public Health England (PHE) in August 2020, some six months into the pandemic questioned.
Sir Jeremy, who took up his new post as WHO’s chief scientist just last week, had condemned the proposal to abolish PHE in favor of a new organization to be run by Hancock’s friend Baroness Dido Harding, who runs the NHS Test and Trace programme had .
Sir Jeremy, a former professor of tropical diseases at Oxford University and one of the world’s leading experts on infectious diseases, was also very critical of Test and Trace.
He posted on Twitter early August 19, 2020: “Arbitrary layoffs. blame. Ill-considered, short-term, reactive reforms…preventing the inevitable public scrutiny” and a link to a newspaper article reporting the PHE cancellation.
The social media post so enraged ministers that they organized a ring round of Sir Jeremy’s colleagues, including even Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, then Chair of the Wellcome Trust and former head of MI5.
Lord Bethell, the Health Secretary and one of Mr Hancock’s closest friends, told Hancock: “He will now know that I have conducted a comprehensive ring round. This will irritate him, but also warn him. I’m wondering if there’s some sort of official way to speak to him?”
The talks are revealed in more than 100,000 messages exchanged between ministers, officials and others during the pandemic, obtained by The Telegraph.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser and chairman of the Sage committee, was also embroiled in the row after Mr Hancock asked: “Indeed [Sir Jeremy] does SAGE have any value at all? I’ve never heard him say anything useful.”
Mr Hancock’s comments will raise serious concerns about apparent behind-the-scenes attempts to undermine a senior scientist and member of Sage, the body that has provided the Government with independent scientific advice on Covid.
It will also raise questions about ministers’ response to public criticism from notable scientists concerned about the handling of the pandemic.
In his own book, published in July 2021, Sir Jeremy says of the then Health Secretary: “Matt Hancock bears responsibility for the shortage of PPE and the testing fiasco, among other failures, which have contributed to the terrible epidemics in care homes and hospitals .”
In the book, Sir Jeremy also said that appointing Baroness Harding as Chair of Test and Trace was a “grave mistake” and that “even worse” than PHE “being thrown under the bus” was the decision to hand Baroness Harding the responsibility for the new body to transmit.
Mr Hancock appears to have been furious with Sir Jeremy early in the pandemic, even before he published posts about the abolition of Public Health England in August 2020.
Four months earlier, in April 2020, Mr Hancock was already upset that Sir Jeremy had given an interview with Sophy Ridge on Sky News in which he said: “I hope we would have a vaccine by the end of this year”, but warned it was difficult to ensure it was safe and then be manufactured in billions of doses around the world that “are really effective”.
It is unclear which part of the Sky News interview so irritated Mr Hancock, but he sent a WhatsApp message to a special adviser at 9.18am on April 20, the day after the interview aired, asking if Sir Jeremy was the Permission had been given to speak to him by the broadcaster.
It’s unclear if Sage members were obligated to do so. Mr Hancock said: “We need a Jeremy Farrar handling strategy. He’s totally sidelined, a complete loudmouth, has little respect from serious scientists. Did he approach us before he made Ridge? He must either be in the tent and on the site or outside and commenting. It adds no value internally.”
On the day he gave the Sky News interview, Lord Bethell Hancock said he had “agreed after massive back-and-forth” with Sir Jeremy and Professor John Newton, the government’s test czar, on proposals to conduct a poll to test the public on past and current Covid infections.
However, Sir Jeremy had expressed concern that April 2020 antibody tests were unlikely to be accurate.
In a message distributed to Mr Hancock and Lord Bethell, Sir Jeremy wrote of the tests: “They should not be believed. I have not seen any data showing that a currently available rapid test would be useful or informative. Some are frankly dangerous. I guess this is not a popular message. I wish that wasn’t true. But the RDTs [rapid detection tests] are currently a distraction. There may be good RDTs in the coming months – from my perspective and reading the data there are none today.”
Lord Bethell seemed concerned at Sir Jeremy’s attitude. “Farar is a total wrench in the works,” he said in a message to Mr Hancock on April 19, adding: “But I think he kind of needs management. Either a big hug. Or a sharp conversation. But right now q is difficult.”
A month later, on May 29, Sir Jeremy tweeted his concerns that Covid was “spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England” and that Test and Trace needed to be “in place and fully operational”, to cope with an increase in the virus virus.
He would tweet three weeks later on June 19, 2020 that the “situation has now changed” and the decision to lift lockdown restrictions was “perfectly reasonable”.
But on May 29, Allan Nixon, another of Mr Hancock’s advisers, wrote to his boss via WhatsApp: “Jeremy Farrar is going off the rails again,” to which the Health Secretary replied: “He’s definitely No10’s problem, not ours,” before He added: “When asked about Farrar by No. 10, explain that we thought it best to relieve him of his duties, but were overruled…”
However, Hancock’s anger and frustration mount after Sir Jeremy tweeted criticism of the government following the axing of PHE.
On that day, August 19, 2020, Mr Hancock sent a message to Sir Chris Wormwald, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health.
“We must do something about Farrar. Can we fire him? This is totally unacceptable,” Hancock wrote in a WhatsApp message. Sir Chris replied: “Had to be Patrick V to fire him as it’s SAGE. “
The next day, Mr Hancock expressed his concern to Emma Dean, a special counsel, and asked her to speak to Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer (CMO).
“Can you speak to CMO and see what we can do?” asked Mr. Hancock. Ms. Dean replied, “Yes. What is your question? Get rid of or neutralize?” to which Mr Hancock replied: “Neutralize. Stop the slander.”
Later, Mr. Hancock, apparently still irritated, said: “Why don’t we throw him off SAGE? he’s no use.” Ms Dean said removing Sir Jeremy “would make him a martyr and dine very loudly” and advised against it.
On August 21 Sir Jeremy is still vexed and Lord Bethell tells Mr Hancock he has spoken to an eminent scientist ‘about dealing with Farrar’.
Lord Bethell tells Mr Hancock he was advised “not to speak to Manning Buller – she is wild and smug and would easily interpret a call as in any way compromising Wellcome’s independence. He suggests that I speak directly to Farrar and nicely explains the challenge of open criticism from outside when I act as a trusted advisor. I called, he didn’t pick up. will keep you posted”.
“Manning Buller” refers to Eliza Manningham Buller, then Chair of the Wellcome Trust and former head of MI5.
Five days later Lord Bethell informed Mr Hancock that he had spoken to eminent scientists about Sir Jeremy.
He also spoke to Baroness Manningham Buller: “Manning Buller said she agrees with him 100% and defends his right to say what he wants.
“I called JF and texted him but he didn’t answer. He will now know that I did a comprehensive ring round. This will irritate him, but also warn him. I’m wondering if there’s some sort of official way to speak to him?”
Sir Jeremy remained a member of Sage throughout the pandemic.