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Sir Patrick Vallance spent his 60th birthday at a podium in Downing Street, flanking Boris Johnson.
Whatever plans he had were scrapped.
Instead of celebrations, the UK’s chief scientific officer stood in sombre silence as the prime minister ordered everyone to stay at home “where they possibly can”.
The pandemic was upon us. Vallance may have been one of the few people in Whitehall who understood what was coming.
The man who dreamed of being a chef, who has a taste for Mimolette cheese and Scandi noir dramas, was unexpectedly in the spotlight.
A year on, he is one of the nation’s best known scientists. He and his close friend and confidant, England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, have been the double act that has tried to plot a path through and out of a once-in-a-generation crisis.
Often delivering unwelcome news, the pair have been dubbed “glum and glummer” for their dire warnings about the threat posed by the virus and advising three national lockdowns.
But it now seems clear that Boris Johnson, and his advisers, were slow to heed Vallance’s early advice.
Before the 16 March press conference, Vallance chaired a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) in which a collection of experts had advised that the first lockdown should begin immediately.
Johnson did not announce the unprecedented national lockdown until a week later on 23 March in a primetime TV address to the nation.
When the media started questioning why the lockdown had not started sooner, a blame game ensued in Downing Street.
Vallance was quick to point out that he had “argued stronger than anyone” for lockdown and in doing so got a “telling off” from Whitty, Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, and Sir Chris Wormald, permanent secretary at the Department of Health.
Vallance’s friends and colleagues say he is not afraid to speak scientific truth to power. “He’s very level-headed. He focuses on the science, not the politics,” says Prof Sir Munir Pirmohamed, a consultant physician and president of the British Pharmacological Society, who has been friends with Vallance – a fellow pharmacologist – since the early 1990s. “He provides the advice, and lets the government make the decisions.”
Pirmohamed says he was delighted when Vallance was appointed chief scientific adviser, a post created by the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in 1966 in an effort to modernise the civil service.
“It is a hugely important job, but nobody could have expected it to have turned out to be such a big deal,” he said. “He’s a TV celebrity now. It’s great that science is being communicated with the public so often. I hope there are kids who see him, and think: ‘I’d like to have a career in science.’”
When Vallance was a child his ambition was to be a palaeontologist or, as he put it in an interview with the British Medical Journal, a “dinosaur hunter”. He was born in Essex in 1960 and educated at Truro school in Cornwall, where boarding fees today are almost £30,000 a year.
An early influence was his chemistry teacher, Mr Clark, who got him fixated on experiments. “There’s a thrill in knowing something that nobody else knows,” Vallance said in an article encouraging young people to follow him into science. “When you do science, when you do an experiment, nobody else in the world – for that second – knows the answer to that question other than you.”
He studied medicine at St George’s medical school in Tooting, less than two miles from his current home in south London. His biggest inspirations were Tom Pilkington, St George’s professor of medicine, whom he described as “eccentric, brilliant and empathetic”, and Joe Collier, another St George’s professor, who was “iconoclastic” and taught him as a student and junior lecturer.
Vallance went on to teach at St George’s and carried out groundbreaking research into blood pressure physiology, before moving across the city in 1992 to University College London (UCL) where he became head of medicine.
That job came with a huge administration burden, as well as teaching and treating patients. At one point, Vallance said, there was “a danger” he was becoming “extremely overloaded with things … that sometimes really, really important things like the patient you’re looking after may not get the care and attention that the patient absolutely demands and deserves from you”.
While at UCL he published a paper titled A Post-take Ward Round in which he said the “reinvention of teams of doctors, nurses, therapists and social workers seems like an important task for general medicine”. It’s a suggestion that many in the medical and social care professions say should have been acted upon by politicians decades ago.
His current role is an apolitical civil service posting. But when asked, in 2015, to pick the best health secretary of his lifetime, Vallance plumped for Frank Dobson, who served under Tony Blair.
He explained that this was because Dobson introduced the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) in an attempt to end the so-called “postcode lottery” of healthcare.
And also because Dobson “helped me challenge a parking ticket I got when delayed on a ward round between Christmas and new year, when a patient had had a cardiac arrest”.
Vallance said the more time he spent in the United States, the more thankful he was for Nye Bevan’s “remarkable vision” in creating the NHS in 1946. Another hero is the climate crisis activist Greta Thunberg, who he said was driving the biggest behavioural change in the UK.
He shocked his students and colleagues (and himself a little) one day in 2006 when he quit UCL for a job at the British pharmaceutical giant GSK. “If you’d asked me the day before I made my decision – literally the day before – I would have told you that my career was going to be in clinical academia forever,” he said in a talk about his career to the Academy of Medical Sciences.
He had previously written “quite a lot of negative things about the industry not really delivering what it needed to for patients and being too focused on profit”.
Then one night the head of research and development at GSK took him out for dinner. (Vallance is quite the foodie, and once said his fantasy last meal would be “langoustine in shellfish broth with peas; pigeon with figs; Saint-Marcellin and vieux Mimolette cheeses; and Seville oranges with caramelised sugar”.)
The R&D boss asked Vallance to join GSK as head of drug discovery, the unit tasked with producing new treatments. “It was a difficult problem,” Vallance recalled. “Am I going to spend the rest of my career criticising what I saw as a failure, or go in and try and do something about it?”
He joined and rose quickly up the corporate ladder to become president of R&D and join GSK’s board. He was rewarded handsomely, collecting total pay and bonuses of £4.4m in 2017, his last full year at the company. His basic pay of just over £1m was inflated with £3.4m of bonuses linked to share price performance and also the commercial success of new drug discoveries.
The new drugs – for the treatment of cancer, asthma and HIV – discovered by Vallance’s team had made GSK more than £10bn in the previous two years, far above the company’s target, which triggered the maximum R&D bonus payment for Vallance and the other bosses.
Vallance sold most of his GSK bonus shares before joining the government, but it was revealed in September that he still holds shares worth about £600,000. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said: “The first I knew about it was when I read it in the newspapers.” Downing Street insisted there was no conflict of interest.
His job as chief science adviser pays £185,000.
The money Vallance made at GSK has not gone unnoticed in government, with one source describing him as “the wealthiest civil servant in the history of Whitehall”. It allowed Vallance and his wife, Sophie Dexter, a former GP, to buy their £1.8m house without a mortgage in 2018. The couple have two sons and a daughter, who he says call him “geeky”.
“There will be people that carp and say you’ve gone to the dark side, you’ve done it for money, whatever,” Vallance said when asked about his move to big pharma on Radio 4’s The Life Scientific. “There’s nothing you can do about that. That’s why the personal reputation bit you need to be comfortable with, before you make a decision like that.”
Vallance loved working at GSK, where he had a budget of £3bn a year and hundreds of very clever and motivated people under his command. But he missed academia, for the “excitement of super-bright people asking bloody difficult questions” and also “the banter”.
Asked what he would have become in a different life, Vallance said he would have been a chef. He listed his hobbies in Who’s Who as “mushrooming, gardening and playing tennis badly”.
He may be a doctor dealing with a health crisis now, but when he took on the chief scientific adviser role he was immediately called on to advise on the Novichok poisoning in Salisbury.
It has been a way more stressful couple of years than Vallance expected when he took on the job. He says he copes with the stress by taking the government’s advice to exercise regularly (he cycles to work) and curling up on the sofa with his wife to watch foreign TV dramas. Scandi hits such as The Bridge and Borgen were favourites, but the current boxset in the Vallance household is the knotty Parisian crime drama Spiral.
But it’s not his wife (or the prime minister) he wants to shout out thanks to for helping him keep it together during the crisis.
At Christmas, in a lecture to students and staff at Imperial College, he gave a glimpse of the pressure he has been under.
“It is relentless and it’s difficult … and there is only one other person who actually understood what it was like and that was Chris [Whitty],” he explained.
“The fact that he and I could talk about it was very, very important in terms of making sure we supported each other and actually made it possible to go through some of the really difficult times.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Patrick Vallance: the adviser who spoke scientific truth to power | Patrick Vallance