Matt Hancock called top UK scientist 'loudmouth', leaked messages show

Health secretary asked if the expert could be sacked

Sir Jeremy Farrar, whose possible sacking was discussed by Matt Hancock. Reuters
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Tory MP Matt Hancock branded a top scientist a “loudmouth” after he publicly questioned whether a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine could be developed at pace, leaked messages show.

The former health secretary also called for him to be sacked over his opposition to the government's decision to close Public Health England.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, due to take up the post of chief scientist at the World Health Organisation in April, was a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) during the coronavirus crisis.

As the early stages of the pandemic took hold, Mr Hancock criticised Sir Jeremy in WhatsApp messages to colleagues.

As pressure for a vaccine mounted in April 2020, the scientist gave an interview to Sophy Ridge of Sky News, and said that while “I hope we would have a vaccine towards the end of this year” it would be challenging to introduce a jab.

He warned of the difficulty of making sure a vaccine is safe as well as manufacturing it in billions of doses across the globe.

Mr Hancock’s WhatsApp messages, obtained by The Telegraph, show he was unhappy about Sir Jeremy’s interview, but it is not clear what part he did not like.

A day after the piece was broadcast, the Tory MP sent a message to a special adviser questioning why the scientist had been given permission to do a TV interview.

“We need a Jeremy Farrar handling strategy,” Mr Hancock wrote. “He is totally offside, a complete loudmouth, has little respect amongst the serious scientists.

“Did he approach us before doing Ridge?” he asked, in reference to the Sky News programme.

“He needs to be either inside the tent and onside, or outside and commentating. He adds no value internally.”

Matt Hancock served as health secretary during the Covid-19 pandemic before being forced to resign after breaching rules on social distancing. PA

It remains unclear if Sage members had to obtain government permission to give interviews.

Months later, Sir Jeremy also publicly questioned the Conservative government’s move to shut down Public Health England about six month after the coronavirus crisis struck the UK. At the time, he spoke out against the decision to close PHE in favour of a new organisation run by a friend of Mr Hancock.

In August 2020 the scientist made his distaste for the government’s decision to close PHE known on Twitter.

“Arbitrary sackings. Passing of blame. Ill thought through, short term, reactive reforms … Pre-empting inevitable public inquiry,” he wrote. He included link to a newspaper article reporting the closure of PHE.

His outspokenness irked Mr Hancock, messages suggest.

Messages sent by the health secretary to an adviser included a call for Sir Jeremy to be sacked.

“We have to do something about Farrar. Can we fire him?” said Mr Hancock. “This is completely unacceptable.”

The adviser replied by telling him this would be up to the government’s chief scientific adviser.

The information came to light after journalist Isabel Oakeshott handed Mr Hancock's private messages to The Telegraph. He had entrusted them to her for her work ghost writing his book. She said her decision to pass the messages to the media was on public interest grounds.

Last week she said she was not going to be “blown off course” by legal threats over the leak.

“It is in the overwhelming public interest against that backdrop to release as much information as can be found about what happened and why, because another pandemic could happen at any point and I don’t think there should be a repeat of the disasters of lockdown,” she told BBC Breakfast on Friday.

Updated: March 05, 2023, 6:14 PM