As government chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance became a household name as the calm and rational presence at the daily Covid briefings. Beckie Smith takes a look at the man behind the TV screen
Gus O’Donnell admits he once gave Sir Patrick Vallance what later turned out to be the “worst advice known to man”.
In early 2018, the soon-to-be government chief scientific adviser approached several senior figures for their words of wisdom on how to succeed in the job. One of the questions he pitched to Lord O’Donnell was about the public-facing parts of the role.
O’Donnell, who was cabinet secretary from 2005 to 2011, laughs as he remembers his response: “I said, ‘Well, it’s pretty rare. I don’t suppose you’ll have to do a lot of that, but occasionally they need someone in a white coat to look authoritative.’ How wrong can you be?”
Just over two years later, Vallance had become a regular fixture on the nation’s televisions alongside chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty and the prime minister at the daily press briefings on Covid-19. Vallance and Whitty quickly became known as the calm and reasoned presence sharing information on R-rates and social distancing amid what often became tense exchanges between politicians and journalists.
Throughout, both remained staunchly politically neutral. When the Partygate scandal erupted last year, Vallance’s assessment of lockdown-breaking gatherings in No.10 was understated but damning: “It was really important at all stages that everyone stuck to the rules... It is disappointing that wasn’t the case.”
Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist who sat on the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies for the two years it met regularly to support the government’s Covid response, says this measured demeanour continued behind the scenes.
“Patrick was working in an extraordinarily pressured situation… and he held it all together with such apparent ease,” says Edmunds. Managing the “enormous pyramid of information” and communicating it to ministers was a “huge undertaking”, Edmunds says. “It always seemed so easy, and he was never ruffled.”
Chief scientific advisers can come from any field of science – and as a physician and clinical pharmacologist, Vallance seemed especially well suited to supporting the response to a global pandemic. His understanding of the private sector was also invaluable, having spent six years as president of research and development at the pharmaceutical giant GSK before moving into government.
“There’s no reason why civil servants would know much about big pharma, but Patrick did and he knew the way they think,” O’Donnell says. “We were incredibly lucky to have the right person in the right place at the right time.”
“There’s no reason why civil servants would know much about big pharma, but Patrick did and he knew the way they think” Gus O’Donnell
But as in all crises and policy issues, the chief scientific adviser’s job is not to rely solely on their own knowledge, but to draw on expertise in and outside government. That was no insignificant feat, says Professor Iain Buchan, chair in public health and clinical informatics at the University of Liverpool. “There were religious-like opinions from various academic groups who only saw parts of the problem,” he says. Much of this came from outside Sage – such as the “venomous tweeting” about lateral-flow tests and other measures – but Buchan remembers the chief scientist “calmly diffusing unnecessary energy” in meetings on occasion.
Several of the attendees CSW spoke to nod to the difficulties of managing egos in a room full of the UK’s top experts in their fields.
Derek Smith, professor of infectious disease informatics at the University of Cambridge, says he was “utterly impressed at how collegial everybody was – how people didn’t seem to be jockeying for position”. Largely thanks to Vallance’s leadership, he says, “everybody’s ego was in check”.
Smith says Vallance “immediately made [him] feel at home”. Turning his mind back to the first time he attended Sage, Smith says: “Patrick calls on me as if he knows me. I’ve never met him in person, it’s the first time I’ve been in a meeting with him.”
This leadership style had a powerful effect, Smith says. “It was absolutely clear that when there were disagreements or different opinions, or one lab’s data said something different from another lab’s data, there would be a genuine openness to figure out what was causing this difference.”
Smith has spent two decades on the World Health Organization committee that selects global flu vaccine strains each year. He says he has “never seen anybody in Patrick’s league” as a chair. “He’s absolutely on point. Not only to the government, but to the media, to the country. I never saw him anything but calmly ‘on it’.”
While welcoming and cordial, Vallance ran a tight ship through those pressured months. Buchan, who led a six-month testing pilot in Liverpool in 2020, says Vallance “rightly” cut him off when his presentation of the findings ran long.
“When I emailed him with more detail that weekend, he sent me a very thoughtful reply,” Buchan says. “That’s a mark of someone working at multiple levels: as the executive chairman running an efficient national meeting in an emergency situation; and a chief scientific adviser who integrates advice and treats his advisers with good grace. Grace is a very important commodity in a pressured world.”
Like the other academics CSW has spoken to, Buchan credits Vallance with fostering a “great sense of camaraderie and public service” among the experts. “I was very struck by Patrick’s thoughtfulness. He always responded with alacrity, in detail, in a timely and very considered way,” he says.
Vallance’s approach to leadership may well have been informed by his own experiences. Soon after his appointment in 2018, Vallance told CSW how his career had been shaped – and almost radically altered – by his working environment. He said he “nearly” gave up being a professor at University College London in the mid-1990s, “because of an interaction with a senior person who was making my life very, very difficult”. A mentor convinced him to stay, and he went on to become UCL’s head of medicine.
"It takes a special sort of person to be able to tell someone off and leave them feeling better about themselves at the end of it” John Edmunds
For Edmunds, getting told off by Vallance was, somewhat counterintuitively, a positive experience. He says Sage members were told not to speak about what had been discussed in the meetings until the minutes had been published a few days later. Amid intense pressure from journalists for information about the pandemic, he admits that “sometimes we slipped up”.
“You would get a little note saying, ‘can you speak with me?’… but it was all done in such a nice way. You got the message that you had been told off – but it takes a special sort of person to be able to tell someone off and leave them feeling better about themselves and their daily life and their work at the end of it.”
Not just 'the pandemic chief scientific adviser'
In many ways, the Covid pandemic has defined Vallance’s tenure as chief scientific adviser – something that was recognised at Buckingham Palace last year, when he was upgraded from his 2019 knighthood to become Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. But it would be a mistake, says British Academy chief executive Hetan Shah, to think of Vallance solely as “the pandemic chief scientific adviser”. “He may go down as the most influential government chief scientific adviser we’ve had so far,” Shah says. He points to the work Vallance has done to bolster the government science and engineering network, and the creation last November of the cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council to drive the UK’s science and tech strategy. With it came the Office for Science and Technology Strategy, tasked with delivering the council’s vision.
“Those big structural changes will be with us for a long time and embed the research-science-technology-innovation agenda across government,” says Shah. “That is his big legacy, but I’m not sure he’s got the credit for it, because people see the pandemic and that’s what they’ll remember him for.”
Vallance has also invested a great deal of time and effort in building up the government science and engineering profession. Setting out his stall in December 2018, he said he wanted the more than 10,000 scientists and engineers across government to have “much more visibility” and more developed career paths.
A few months later came the Government Science Capability Review, which called for departments to up their R&D budgets and for Spending Review bids to set out their research needs and costs. Vallance spoke out publicly about the government’s failure to protect science funding, telling CSW it was “not surprising” that was where cuts had fallen “because it’s an easy thing to cut without making an in-year impact”.
Vallance also said he wanted to see science “totally embedded in the Whitehall system” in the same way as economics, both through more funding and a greater proliferation of scientific skills throughout the civil service.
To that end, the capability review called for half of all Fast Stream entrants to have science backgrounds. When Vallance arrived in government, only 10% did, which he said in a 2022 lecture showed a “deficit” of people entering the civil service with science, technology and engineering expertise. This February, it was announced that half of the 2023 cohort of fast streamers will be STEM graduates.
The comparison between the role of economics in government policy and of what Vallance has – perhaps graciously – referred to as “other branches of science” began before he entered government. Despite O’Donnell’s admission that his comment on public appearances fell inadvertently wide of the mark, Vallance said the former cab sec’s advice on the role of science in shaping policy was “extremely useful”.
“Gus told me his view was that science was good in parts across government. There were places of real excellence… but it was certainly not ubiquitous,” Vallance told the Bennett Institute for Public Policy Annual Conference last April.
He said O’Donnell, an economist who was permanent secretary at the Treasury before leading the civil service, had told him that “science should be as embedded as [economics] is and should be as much a part of everyday life in government”.
Sir Ian Boyd, a former chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, says Vallance has made “huge progress with respect to getting science much more recognised by central government as a significant component of policy development and delivery”.
Boyd says science has been “hugely undervalued” in the development and delivery of government policy. “I think it doesn’t get the respect it deserves and, as a result, we have various disasters happening,” he says, nodding to the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the early response to Covid – which was hampered by the emphasis on influenza in the government’s pre-Covid pandemic planning.
Vallance was aware of this and was “more internally focused than a lot his predecessors had been – less focused on issues and much more focused on making sure the profession was working well”, says Boyd, whose seven years at Defra spanned four GCSA appointments.
One of Vallance’s early priorities as a civil servant was filling gaps in the government science advice network. MPs on parliament’s Science and Technology Committee were horrified to discover in 2017 that there had been no chief scientific adviser at the then-Department for Communities and Local Government at the time of the Grenfell Tower disaster, which killed 72 people.
Months after arriving in post, Vallance wrote to the perm secs of each government department telling them to ensure they had a chief scientist in place. But he made it clear the roles must be filled by people with relevant expertise – engineering, in the case of DCLG’s successor MHCLG, which oversaw building safety. He told CSW in late 2018 that he would not be pushed into rushing appointments, because “it’s not a tick-box exercise; it’s got to be done the right way”.
MHCLG appointed its first chief scientist in more than six and a half years – architectural and urban computing expert Alan Penn – in July 2019. Over the following months, departments filled the remaining gaps in the CSA network.
Vallance was a “very strong advocate” of the departmental chief scientific advisers’ work within government and “somebody we could turn to as a colleague”, says Boyd, who is now professor of biology at the University of St Andrews and chair of the UK Research Integrity Office.
When Boyd produced a paper ahead of Brexit on the risks that could emerge as the UK and EU science advisory systems diverged, Vallance “championed that through the Cabinet Office to make sure it was heard at the centre of government that, even if you’ve got the same science, you’re probably going to end up with different advice,” he says. “That’s quite a difficult thing to articulate to people, and I got a lot of support from Patrick for that.”
When Sage supported the government’s handling of the 2018 Novichok crisis, Vallance – who was appointed a month after the first poisonings – did a “fantastic job” leading the scientific response, Boyd says. But he says Vallance had no hesitation in standing down the group once the acute crisis had passed and handing over responsibility to him while Defra led the cleanup effort. “He was able to step away from that completely. He trusted me entirely to deliver it, which gave me confidence that he had confidence in me,” he says.
Edmunds says this willingness to rely on others was one of the chief scientific adviser’s strengths during the Covid crisis. Vallance, he says, was “very inclusive – scientifically as well as of people in the committee”.
Buchan agrees that Vallance’s openness to a range of expertise and his ability to synthesise large amounts of data and see the big picture served Sage well. “Patrick was very thoughtful in his responses and foresight,” he says. The chief scientist, he explains, could “look several months ahead at what might happen, to think about how the country could recover from a pandemic, or the growth of health and life sciences and digital health economies”.
This foresight was apparent in the way Vallance interacted with external expert bodies like the royal academies, says Shah. The chief scientist approached the British Academy in the early months of the pandemic to ask for insights on its long-term societal consequences.
“Not every person in government is able to spot how outside organisations can help,” Shah says. “He had that concept of the porosity of government and the value of getting outsiders to come and help – and the recognition that lots of people did want to help – which I think has been really valuable.”
O’Donnell says he found his early conversations with Vallance instructive. “I think it says a lot that he came to talk to me – his understanding that there were lots of things he knew incredibly well, lots of skills he had, but something he didn’t get was civil service and government,” he says.
“He knew what he didn’t know and was keen to learn so he could be very effective."
This article originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of Civil Service World. Read the full issue here