Top scientist quits SAGE advisory group after 'concerning' Covid infection rates in UK

2 November 2021, 20:44 | Updated: 3 November 2021, 08:11

Sir Jeremy Farrar stepped down at the end of October.
Sir Jeremy Farrar stepped down at the end of October. Picture: Alamy

By Emma Soteriou

A top SAGE scientist has quit the advisory group after concerns over Covid transmission rates in the UK.

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Wellcome Trust director, Sir Jeremy Farrar, left the group at the end of October, saying the crisis was "a long way from over".

He had been pushing for a "vaccine plus" strategy to limit transmission levels in the UK, which would have seen increased ventilation, mask-wearing and testing.

In a statement, Sir Jeremy said the advisory group - which has helped guide the Government throughout the pandemic - had been under increased pressure.

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Sir Jeremy said: "At the end of October 2021, after careful consideration, I stepped down as a participant of the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

"My focus now must be on our work at Wellcome. 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 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. 

"Throughout this crisis SAGE has provided vital evidence, and independent, expert, transparent advice to support the UK response, often under huge pressure.

"It has been an honour to have joined the hundreds of scientists who have contributed, and I thank Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty for outstanding leadership. I remain, as always, available where I may offer help as a clinical scientist or as Director of Wellcome."

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Former health secretary, Stephen Dorrell, said Sir Jeremy's resignation is a concern.

"We knew over interviews he gave in the summer, that he had been concerned that the government hadn't always been willing to explain why it disagrees with SAGE when it does," said Mr Dorrell.

"It's an uneasy relationship when ministers say one thing and one day they are doing what science tells us, and on another day simply they disagree with science but don't explain why - and that I think is the issue."

Sir Jeremy was appointed to the expert group as part of the Vaccine Task Force.

He previously praised the UK's "remarkable achievement" in rapidly developing vaccines in response to the pandemic.

However, the "vaccine plus" strategy that he called for in recent months was intended to prevent a rise in cases and the potential introduction of the Government's 'Plan B'.

He has since shifted his focus to Wellcome - a foundation created to support science, in order to solve "urgent health challenges facing everyone".

A Government Office for Science spokesperson said: "We can confirm that Sir Jeremy has stood down from the Covid SAGE activation, and thank him for his contribution from the very start of the activation.

"SAGE continues to provide government with independent expert scientific and technical advice."