Wellcome director resigns as UK government science adviser

The UK government’s pandemic science advisory group has lost one of its most prominent members. Sir Jeremy Farrar has left Sage, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, to concentrate on his work as director of the Wellcome Trust, the country’s largest medical charity.

Farrar, who has a global reputation as a public health leader, has recently been advocating stronger action against Covid-19 than the government has taken — a “vaccine plus” strategy involving more mask-wearing on public transport and in shops and indoor spaces, as well as more active promotion of good ventilation and flexible working to avoid crowded commuting and offices.

In a statement Farrar said: “The Covid-19 crisis is a long way from over, with the global situation deeply troubling. The high levels of transmission seen in the UK remain concerning, but I stepped down as a participant of Sage knowing ministers had been provided with most of the key science advice needed over the winter months.”

Farrar, who started a holiday break this week, has made it known several times since the start of the pandemic early last year that he favoured more stringent measures to control the spread of coronavirus than ministers have adopted.

He considered resigning from Sage in September 2020, according to his book Spike published this summer. “I began to question the point of giving advice to a body that chose not to use it,” he wrote.

But Farrar insisted his departure from Sage should not be interpreted as a fresh disagreement with the government. His resignation was first reported by Sky News.

“Throughout this crisis Sage has provided vital evidence and independent, expert, transparent advice to support the UK response, often under huge pressure,” he said. “I remain, as always, available where I may offer help as a clinical scientist or as director of Wellcome.”

Farrar said he would focus on work at the charity. “This includes supporting the international research effort to end the pandemic, ensuring the world is better prepared for inevitable future infectious disease threats, and making the case so the full potential of science is realised to inform and drive change against all the urgent health threats we face globally.”

The Government Office for Science responded: “We can confirm that Sir Jeremy has stood down from Sage and thank him for his contribution from the very start . . . Sage continues to provide government with independent expert scientific and technical advice.”

On Tuesday, the government reported the largest number of daily Covid deaths since February, with 293 people dying within 28 days of a positive test. But new cases have fallen 10.4 per cent over the past week while hospitalisations are up 2.5 per cent.

Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe

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