I know Jeremy Farrar a little. Not well, but I’ve interviewed him several times. He’s the director of the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest charitable foundations; it spends hundreds of millions of pounds every year supporting biomedical research. He’s also a member of SAGE, which has advised the government throughout the Covid-19 crisis.
Farrar himself is an infectious disease specialist: he was there in Vietnam when the 2004 bird flu epidemic broke out, and in fact was one of the two doctors who identified it as a new and dangerous strain; he was also on the front lines in Vietnam for the Sars outbreak. There aren’t many people in the UK with more experience in the spread of respiratory viruses.
But he is also a person with responsibilities. If he speaks, it’s taken as speaking for Wellcome, or for Sage. So interviewing him is — from a journalistic point of view — sometimes frustrating: as a controversy-seeking hack, you want him to say “and these idiots in government have messed the whole thing up from top to bottom”, and lo, you have your headline. Instead, he would usually be more conciliatory, reluctant to place blame. It was very inconsiderate of him, frankly.
That’s why my attention has been very much caught by him tweeting this morning about the government’s decision to axe Public Health England (PHE) and replace it with something called the National Institute for Health Protection.
Arbitrary sackings.Passing of blame.Ill thought through, short term, reactive reforms.Out of context of under investment for years. Response to singular crisis without strategic vision needs for range future challenges.Preempting inevitable public enquiry. https://t.co/maS5ckabVa
— Jeremy Farrar (@JeremyFarrar) August 19, 2020
PHE itself was indeed underfunded; it was brought in by the Coalition government in 2013 as a replacement for the Health Protection Agency and other bodies, under the aegis of the Department for Health and Social Care, and like most other public bodies has suffered years of underinvestment. It may well be in need of reform, or indeed of replacement.
But the idea that the best time to do this is the middle of a major global public health crisis seems insane to me — like discovering that your engine is on fire and deciding to build a whole new plane in flight. Better, surely, to start carefully thinking about the best way to build a new agency, and be ready to create it — with proper funding, and freedom from political interference — after the Covid-19 pandemic is in the past, or at least under control. Doing it this way does indeed look knee-jerk, or even an exercise in blame-shifting.
So I agree entirely with Jeremy Farrar. More than that: the fact that he is willing to say it out loud, and not, as he usually and sensibly does, keep his concerns behind closed doors, makes me think it’s an even worse decision than I already did.